Month: May 2018

Mini-Interlude 61 – Tabbris

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The following commissioned interlude takes place several months before the canon start/first chapter of this story. 

The blonde girl stared into the mirror, meeting her own expression as she announced, “So Dad says I need to get a job, something to distract me and keep me out of trouble. Which is clearly crazy talk, because getting in trouble is what distracts me.”

Although she was speaking aloud, the girl had no idea that there was another person listening. She was simply vocalizing her thoughts. Which was a habit that had thoroughly confused and even startled her young Seosten passenger when she had started doing it several years earlier.

Tabbris had briefly been convinced that the then-thirteen-year-old had somehow figured out that she was possessing her. Only a quick, somewhat panicked perusal of the girl’s surface thoughts had put that to rest. Still, whenever her unknowing host spoke to herself, it was hard to completely dismiss the thought of that she was actually addressing the girl inside her.

Or maybe Tabbris just desperately wanted someone to talk to her. Her mother’s recorded lessons that popped into her head now and then were something, but it wasn’t the same as having a real conversation. And that sometimes made it difficult to resist the urge to respond.

But that would have complicated things a lot more than they already were. Even more complicated than the fact that the woman who was supposed to meet her when she first woke up had never shown up. Years after the fact, Tabbris still had no idea what had happened to Aunt Larissa. And she was growing increasingly afraid that she would never find out.

Or maybe she was afraid that she would find out. Because by now, the answer had to be very… very bad.

“Okay,” Flick announced then, the sixteen-year-old girl’s voice snapping Tabbris’s attention back to present, “If Dad wants me to get a job for the summer, I guess I could go look at that theater. They were supposed to be hiring.”

And I think there’s something hinky about that owner guy. He’s creepy. I don’t care how much he’s donated to charity.

That last part came through the girl’s thoughts, as she was apparently unwilling to risk vocalizing the real reason that she wanted to get the theater job, since it would seem to go against that whole ‘staying out of trouble’ reasoning that her father had in the first place.

Pivoting away from the mirror, the girl grabbed her keys from the counter and headed out of the bathroom before taking the stairs two at a time. At the bottom of the stairs, Flick took a quick look around as though to make sure the house was empty before heading out through the front door. She locked it behind herself and was just heading down the sidewalk when she suddenly paused. Slowly, the girl took a couple of steps off the sidewalk, moving to the mostly empty flower garden. She stood there, staring down into the dirt, and Tabbris had the sudden thought that Flick might somehow be able to see the invisible magical runes that Tabbris herself had been placing on the house once a month ever since she had been old enough to do so.

The runes did a lot of things, including alerting Tabbris if anyone unexpected entered the house. They also drove off most minor threats that might be sent by the Seosten or other threats, though they would do nothing against anyone as powerful as the Seosten woman who had come a while back.

Tabbris’s Mama had been right about what their people would do, because that powerful and clearly very old Seosten woman had very obviously been there to possess Flick. She’d tried multiple times that night while Flick herself slept, even going as far as working her way around the room and the house itself to find and disable most of the protective spells that Tabbris had up at the time. The woman had clearly assumed that there was some kind of spell protecting her target, and had been furious when she hadn’t been able to find it.

Tabbris remembered that night. That long, terrible, awful night. She had laid there awake within Flick’s sleeping body, waiting for the moment that the Seosten woman’s anger might translate into violence.

In the end, the woman had simply left (though she and others returned now and then, as though checking to see whether the girl was still immune to their possession). But still, if she had tried anything, what could Tabbris have done? If she tried anything more substantial than breaking spells, hissing curses, and repeatedly attempting to possess the (unknown to her) already possessed girl, Tabbris would have had to… had to…She would have had to do something, though even to this day, she wasn’t sure exactly what that something would have been. She could wake Flick up, and even take over. But from there, what could she possibly have done except maybe run away in that brief moment of the woman’s surprise? Even then, would she actually have gotten very far? And what about Mr. Chambers? The man was the closest thing to an actual father that Tabbris had ever known. Even if he had no idea she existed, she had… pretended, sometimes. When she was too lonely, when she missed her mother too much to stand it for even a second longer, Tabbris had very occasionally slipped into the man’s bedroom and curled up with him. Just for a little while. In his delirious, sleep-filled mind, the man had sometimes wrapped an arm around her while believing that she was his daughter.

For those few minutes once in a great while, Tabbris let herself feel loved and protected. She let the man’s arm around her fool her into thinking that there was anyone on the entire planet who would care for her, that there was anyone who loved her like that.

Those few minutes were worth the days and weeks of guilt that inevitably sprang up afterward. Mr. Chambers wasn’t her father. He didn’t know she existed. She was taking the love that he had for Flick and abusing it. She was bad. She was so very bad.

And yet, sometimes… she still couldn’t help it. Being alone here on this planet, constantly watching out for threats, being vigilant every night, it was… hard. It was so hard.

But she had to do it. She had to be a big girl. She had to be brave. She had promised, promised Dream-Mama through the memories that had been implanted in her head that she would help protect Felicity.

Aunt Larissa was supposed to be there to help. But that didn’t matter. Tabbris could do it. No matter how hard it got, no matter how lonely she was, she would not disappoint her mother. She would make Mama proud of her. So that one day… one day, when Mama was free, she would know that Tabbris had done everything she’d asked her to.

That day would come.

It had to.

After those few seconds where Tabbris briefly thought that Flick had somehow been able to see the spells that she had put up, the other girl instead bent down a bit more to grab a coin that had fallen into the dirt from somewhere. “Hah,” she announced aloud, “I knew that dollar coin was around here somewhere. But how’d it get all the way out here?”

Tabbris knew how. Some ghosts had been trying to work their way into the house a few days earlier, and she had needed a quick spell to stop them. The dollar coin sitting on Flick’s dresser had been first thing she had been able to find that would work.

At least the ghosts were gone for now. Tabbris would have to find something else to put the blocking spell on before they came back again. Somehow, she was pretty sure that Flick would know something was going on if she found that coin out in the flower bed again.

She could have simply erased the older girl’s memory of it, but… Tabbris tried to avoid using that as much as she possibly could. Any time that there was literally any other way of handling things, she would do it that way rather than tamper with memories. Even the little bit that she was forced to do, the girl felt horribly guilty about.  

Bad. Someone else could have done a better job. If she was older, smarter, stronger, she could have protected Flick the way that her mother wanted her to.

No, the way that she wanted to. Because over these past years, Tabbris had come to truly care for her host. She would never let anything happen to Flick. Not if she could help it. She would work as hard as she possibly could to make sure that the Seosten never enslaved her like they had been trying to do. Not just because her mother had wanted her to, but because she wanted to. Flick was a good person. She didn’t deserve what they would do to her, didn’t deserve to be forced into becoming what they would turn her into. She was good, and Tabbris would help her as much as she could. Even if Flick never knew about it.

Sometimes, Tabbris liked to pretend they were actually sisters. Because then Flick could talk to her. Flick could tell her stories, and tease her about her friends at school, and Tabbris could tease her about boyfriends (and girlfriends, because who did Flick’s subconscious think it was fooling?), and they could talk about teachers that Flick had had before Tabbris would have them… And Mr. Chambers would be her father. His proud smile, his hugs, the way his beard tickled, it would be meant for Tabbris too. She could have a family, one who knew that she existed. One that would care about her.

But that was just pretending.

“You know,” a voice spoke up from the sidewalk nearby, “if you really need change that badly, I could spot you a few bucks.” As Flick turned that way, she and Tabbris both saw the man standing there, thumbs hooked through a couple of the belt loops on his jeans. “Hell, might even go up as high as a tenner if you promise to rake my yard or something.”

“Well, that depends, Scott,” Flick drawled in reply. “When you say ‘yard’, do you mean the square foot of grass you have outside of your apartment, or that giant park across the street from it. Cuz that last one might be a bit much for ten bucks.”

“You saying I should go up to twenty?” Scott shot back, grinning at the girl he had babysat for some time.

And Scott, now Deputy Utell, had been a lot more than that. Tabbris had done enough secret spells around him to know that he was no normal human. And while practicing her ability to recall right to Flick from anywhere, she had gone as far as the man’s apartment and had seen him transform into multiple animals.

He was a Pooka. That much Tabbris was pretty sure of. Why he was watching Flick, however, she had no idea. Except that he didn’t seem to have any hostile intentions. She’d made quadruple certain of that. For one thing, she had enchanted a soda can so that the liquid inside would taste incredibly bitter to the person drinking it if they harbored any ill intentions toward the person who had given it to them. She had then put it in the back of the fridge, along with a minor compulsion not to take or notice it until the time was right. Then, the next time that Scott had been over, she’d given Flick a very slight compulsion to make that be the soda she gave him.

Scott had drunk it, and shown no ill effects. That combined with the other spells that Tabbris had used to test him were enough to convince her that, whatever his intentions, he didn’t mean any harm.

Dream-Mama had told her about the group that Mrs. Chambers had worked with, the rebellion. Maybe he was one of those people, keeping an eye on their former leader’s daughter.

“Pshh,” Flick was informing the man then. “I don’t need your chump change, I’m gonna go get a job at the theater on Seventh.”

“Cal’s place?” Scott passed briefly for turning to gesture over his shoulder at the squad car sitting there. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift there and back. I need to pick up some razors anyway, and there’s that Walgreens next door.”  

Tucking the coin into her pocket, Flick moved that way. “Sure, and on the off chance that anything actually exciting happens in this town and you have to race to a scene–”

Scott interrupted while getting back into the car. “I’ll slow down juuuust enough that you don’t kill yourself when I kick your ass out of the car before heading off to it.”


A while later, Scott’s car dropped Flick off again in front of her house. Mr. Chambers’ car was in the driveway, which meant that it was probably about time for dinner. Flick waved at her former babysitter before heading in as the car drove off.

On the way inside, the girl passed someone else was walking along the sidewalk just outside of the house. The older boy, tall and dark haired, offered Flick a soft smile and the vaguest hint of a wave as they passed each other, adding an absent, “Evening.”

Flick, for her part, returned the simple greeting and kept going without a second thought. Tabbris, however, mentally froze. She felt briefly paralyzed for two particular reasons. First, because they had seen that same person over a year earlier when he had been outside the school. Only he had been somewhat older then. Not overwhelmingly so, but still visibly older.

An older brother, maybe? Except no. Tabbris didn’t know exactly how she knew it, but she knew that that was actually the same person, even if he looked younger now.

And even if she hadn’t known it, there was still the second reason he stood out. The fact that Flick dismissed the man from her memory a few seconds after meeting him wasn’t just the normal result of passing a stranger and forgetting what they looked like shortly afterward. No, in this case, the man had actually been using some kind of power, spell, or something that actively erased his specific features from the girl’s memory. Flick would remember that she’d waved at someone, but not exactly who they were or what they looked like.

Why? Was he another one of those watchers? There had been something, however brief and mild, hidden in the man’s expression when he had looked at Flick. Tabbris didn’t know what it was, but she knew that there was some kind of emotion there. What was she supposed to do? Was this a good thing, or a bad thing? Was he a bad guy? What could she do? What–

“Good morning, brave girl.”

Tabbris was back in the dream-house. She was pretty sure that it was the same house that her mother had lived in with her husband and Tabbris’s half-siblings, just before everything had gone wrong. None of the others were ever there, of course. Not aside from pictures, anyway. She had spent the first several years of her life mentally growing up in this dream-space. Her mama, or at least the dream-version of her, had raised the girl, had played with her, had taught her everything she knew. And now, whenever she had a real problem or thought that triggered an answer from the memories that her mother had implanted, she was brought back to what was basically a virtual reality space so that she could learn more.

“Mama!” Smiling brightly, Tabbris leapt to hug her dream-mother. She wasn’t real, of course. And there were certain limits to how she could interact with the girl. But it was something.

She also always said ‘Good morning’ no matter what time it was in the outside world.

So, Tabbris told her dream-mother what had happened. When she was done, the virtual representation of her mama pursed her lips thoughtfully. In reality, all of the implanted memories/lessons that her real mother had left her with were being scanned through until something useful was found, which would then be presented to Tabbris with the shell of a conversation.

Finally, Dream-Mama spoke. “He could be a scout from either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, investigating Felicity just before a potential recruitment. That does tend to happen toward the beginning of the summer. His presence last year might have been the very early steps of that. As for his younger appearance, there are any number of answers for that. He could be a shapeshifter, or he could have been de-aged by something. Or he may possess the ability to alter his own age.”

“But what do I do, Mama?” Tabbris pentively asked. “I dunno if he’s good or bad. What if he wants to hurt Flick? Those ghosts still come sometimes. What if he’s part of that?”

“I will show you a few more protective spells that might help,” Dream-Mama assured her. “And if you see the man again, you might… nudge his appearance into Felicity’s mind, just enough that she will pay more attention to him. You should not have to do anything more overt than that, unless he presents an actual threat. Remember the first rule?”

“Be prepared,” Tabbris instantly recited. “Yes, Mama. If he’s a bad guy, I’ll be ready.” She stood a bit taller then, lifting her chin. “I won’t let him hurt Flick.”

“That’s my good girl,” Dream-Mama praised, pulling her into an embrace. “Now, you enjoy dinner with Felicity and her father, and then I’ll teach you those spells later, while she’s relaxing, okay?”

Tabbris agreed, and then she was seeing through Flick’s eyes once more. Only a few seconds had actually passed in the real world, enough for the girl to reach the front door and step inside.

The smell of pancakes reached them almost immediately, as Lincoln Chambers himself stepped backwards into view to wave with the spatula in his hand. “Good timing, kiderific. I was afraid I’d have to eat these things all by myself.”

“Afraid, or hoping?” Flick shot back to him.

“Depends,” the man drawled while pointing to his daughter with the spatula. “How much trouble did you manage to get into today?”

“Pshaw,” Flick sniffed. “Pshaw, I say. Trouble? Why, I went out and got a job, so there, Mr. Doubtful.”

“Oooh, a real job?” Her father grinned. “That might be worth a whole two pancakes.”

Rolling her eyes, Flick headed that way, though she was skipping a little bit. “Sure, maybe if they’re the size of the entire stove.” Even as she bantered with her father, a smile spread across her face. And it wasn’t just because of the pancakes, which she (and Tabbris) both loved. It was also just from seeing her father. And yet, even that love was tempered by the never-far-off thought that her mother had abandoned him, had abandoned both of them.

Or so Flick thought. Every thought she had about her mother was negative, tainted by the thought that Joselyn had purposefully run off on her family. But Tabbris’s mother hadn’t believed that, and neither did Tabbris. Someone… some very bad person, had taken her. She didn’t know who, or why exactly, but it was probably the same person who kept sending ghosts to try and spy on Flick.

The temptation to try and… subtly hint about that to Flick, to make her feel better about her own mother and give her the benefit of the doubt had been… one of the hardest to resist. After all, it would make Flick feel better. It would be the truth. It would help.

But no. No. Tabbris had decided a long time ago that even that would be too much. She would still be changing Flick’s mind unfairly. She would be controlling her. And Tabbris refused to do that except when she had to. Forcing the girl to think a certain way, or even simply ‘adjusting’ how she thought like that, even with good intentions… she wouldn’t do it.

If Tabbris understood one thing, it was what it felt like to have an amazing, wonderful mother who would do anything for her… including letting her go, no matter how much it hurt her personally.

She really hoped that someday, Flick would understand that too, and would realize just what kind of person her mother really was. 

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-09

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Two dozen heavily armed and armored soldiers instantly forgot that the rest of us existed, turning their weapons instead toward the newly freed Olympian who had just made her presence known. And Sariel met them in turn, taking a few running steps forward. As the first guns began to fire, chewing up the metal around her, the woman suddenly leapt high into the air.

Shot after shot sailed around and past the woman as the soldiers tried to correct their aim, while Sariel herself flipped over, putting herself upside down. Her arms snapped out, and I saw two of the soldiers’ sidearms abruptly disappear, only to reappear in the woman’s waiting hands.

She fired six shots then, three from each pistol, all while still upside down in midair. Each bullet found a different target. And more than that, each of those targets happened to be the eye-slots of the helmets that the soldiers wore. Six shots, upside down and in midair, put through six narrow slots the size of an eye, two at a time in three consecutive double-shots.

Six soldiers down, just like that. They dropped like puppets whose strings had been cut.

Sariel, meanwhile, finished her full-body flip in time to land feet first against the chest of one of the other men. The force of the impact knocked the man to the ground, while the woman, still standing on his chest, snapped the gun in her right hand down to shoot him through the eye-slot as well. At the other time, her left hand snapped out to shoot yet another man, in the knee this time. The impact made the man cry out, dropping his gun as he stumbled.  

At first, I wondered why someone who could clearly hit any target whatsoever would aim for someone’s leg rather than something vital. But the answer became clear a second later, while simultaneously helping to redefine the term bullshit. Because as the man’s gun fell from his hand with the barrel facing more or less toward her, Sariel fired another shot from the gun in her left hand. That bullet struck the trigger of the falling gun, making that weapon fire an actual laser that struck a big guy that had been coming up behind Sariel right in the middle of his forehead.

In other words, Sariel wasn’t just capable of headshotting every single one of these guys at will. She was capable of literally shooting the trigger of a different gun on the other side of the field and making that one still headshot a target. How, I ask. Fucking how?

Like I said, redefining bullshit. And I had a really high bullshit tolerance level by that point.

While I was still reacting to just how fucking ridiculous that was, Sariel was throwing one of those pistols into the face of another man who had been coming for her. He recoiled, while she pivoted to shoot yet another man. One shot, one kill. She took a quick step backward, putting herself close to the man who was recoiling. In the same motion, the woman caught the pistol that she had thrown into his face as it rebounded backward. Arms folding together across her chest so that the guns were pointed in opposite directions, she fired twice more from each gun, taking four more guys down.

By that point, her backward movement had put her directly beside the staggering man. Before he knew what was happening, Sariel trapped his raised gun arm with both of hers, so that all three of their pistols were aimed in the same direction with the man’s caught between hers. As Sariel moved her arms, the man was forced to move his as well, caught the way that he was. And move them she did, pulling the trigger on one of her guns, followed almost immediately by the other. An instant later, she gave the man’s arm just enough of a jerk that he reflexively pulled his own trigger as well while the position of his weapon was moved just a bit, apparently to where the woman wanted it. While the guns that Sariel had were using actual bullets, his fired a blue laser that shot through the air.

The two bullets that the woman had fired first struck their targets in rapid succession. The first hit a charging soldier right in his left eye, knocking his head back while the enormous metal sword that he had been holding dropped from his hands. As it fell, the second shot knocked the sword up and back a bit.

Then that laser that Sariel had forced the other soldier to fire struck the sword at its new angle, rebounding off of the metal surface to cut through three other guys who had all been lined up to take their shots.

I had no words. None. Seeing that, realizing that this woman had managed to shoot a man in the face with one gun, shoot his sword into the exact position she wanted it to be in with the other, and use a third gun (one that she was forcing another guy to aim and fire by trapping his arm between hers) to shoot a laser that rebounded off of that aforementioned sword to hit three other targets? I… I had nothing. There were literally no words.

The enemies, however, apparently did have a word for it. And that word was retreat. Even as Sariel snapped the arm of the man she had caught, throwing him over her shoulder to shoot through his helmet as he fell on the ground, the rest of the soldiers were scattering. They fled in every direction, some throwing down their weapons while others didn’t bother taking that much time. Either way, they booked it, running across the desert ground as if they were literally on fire.

Sariel let them go, standing there in the total silence that followed that mass retreat while she breathed in, then out a couple of times. The rest of us stood as well, just as silent as we stared at the woman we had been trying to save for so long. In my head, Tabbris had gone quiet as well. I could feel her shock, her disbelief that this could possibly be real, along with fear that if she said anything, if she moved at all, she would destroy this beautiful dream and it would be gone forever. Seeing her mother standing there, live and in the flesh after all this time, she didn’t know how to react. There was this great swell of emotion, a joy that had risen far beyond what I could possibly imagine, and which just kept growing with no particular end in sight.

All of that indescribable happiness had to go somewhere, and it finally exploded, almost literally, as Tabbris threw herself out of me. She appeared in a glowing energy form before resolving into her physical body. Sprinting that way at full speed, the girl cried out with a single word that filled the air, a single word that fully encompassed all of that euphoric jubilation that I had felt in her.


The pistols that Sariel had commandeered from the now-dead soldiers dropped from her hands, as the woman pivoted our way with an audible gasp. She immediately took to one knee, arms managing to open wide just in time for Tabbris to physically throw herself those last few feet, literally launching into her mother’s arms, which closed around her and held on tightly.  

Tristan and Vanessa weren’t far behind. Seconds after Sariel’s arms closed around her youngest daughter, the other two made it to her. Both blurted something that sounded like it was midway between the word ‘mom’ and an incoherent noise, as they threw themselves that way.

And, like with Tabbris, Sariel met her twins with open arms. She pulled them all to her, all three of her children, and held them as tightly as she could. 

Someone was sobbing. Then they all were. Half-kneeling on the ground and half-laying against one another, the four clung to each other tightly. Several times, one or another tried to speak. But it always dissolved back into wordless sobbing as the four simply held on, clinging to their family like a man clinging to a life raft through a hurricane. This time, however, no force would pull them apart.

They also weren’t the only ones who were crying. Standing where I was, I felt a hard lump in my throat before swallowing it away. Wet, hot tears flooded my eyes. But they were glorious tears. Tears that I welcomed. Tears that I wanted to count, name, and enshrine, just because of how important this single moment actually was. Blinking my way through them, just so that I could watch this reunion without that watery veil obscuring my vision, I stood in silence.

They deserved this. They deserved it so much. Their family had suffered, had been separated and put through hell just to claw their way back this far. The things that Sariel alone had gone through… the thought was almost enough to drive away the joy that I felt now.

But not quite. Because nothing could ruin this moment. This, watching Sariel finally, finally reunite with her children, was the single happiest scene I could ever remember witnessing. Hearing her choked voice as she repeatedly murmured their names, telling them how much she loved them, shattered any emotional wall I might have had. 

The only thing that possibly could have made it even better would have been if Haiden had been there too. His absence, and the fact that I wasn’t sure how we were going to get back to link up with them again, let alone how long it would take, was the only dark spot on the moment.

“Babies,” Sariel choked out while leaning back to stare at her children. Her fingers wandered through their hair, down their faces, and back again while she whispered each of their names in turn. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris. Oh, my babies. My beautiful, beautiful babies. You’re here, you’re here, you’re alive. Oh, you’re alive. You’re safe. She lied, she lied. I knew she lied. You’re safe. You’re safe. She lied.”

Her shoulders were shaking violently by that point, while her voice cracked. The revelation of how Kushiel had clearly been messing with her head just to hurt her shook me to my core. For a moment, I whispered a silent prayer that Apollo had actually managed to end that bitch somehow while we were gone.

Sariel and the kids all started talking then. Tristan had clearly passed some information about what was going on to his mother when he had managed to recall to her. But now they began to really talk, and explain what had happened and why we were there. Or at least, as much as they could get into it in a very short time.

It was also very emotional, and I didn’t want to interrupt or eavesdrop too much. So, the first thing I did was make my way back onto that transport, both to retrieve my staff and to make sure there weren’t any other surprises waiting for us. Picking up my weapon, I smiled down at the blade and grapple on the ends. “Okay guys,” I whispered, “I think the fight’s over.”

Jaq and Gus resumed their mice forms and moved to each of my shoulders, while I walked back off the transport. Taking a seat on a small boulder, I took Herbie from my pocket and held him up in both of my hands, cupped in my palms.

“Hey buddy,” I murmured under my breath, “what do you think?”

What did he think? I didn’t even know what I thought. We had made that deal with Jophiel and Elisabet because there hadn’t been any other choice. But at what cost? How involved were the two of them in what was going on with Avalon? Could I have managed to talk them into giving that up somehow in exchange for what they wanted? No, obviously not. They already knew that the bargain with saving Sariel already gave them the upper hand. Why would they have agreed to anything else? Still it was a thought that pressed at me. What if they used this, or tried to use it to help those efforts?

I wouldn’t let them. I would die before I let this deal hurt Avalon like that. They had to know that, right? They weren’t stupid. They had to know that there were buttons that they wouldn’t get away with pressing.

And yet, despite all my efforts otherwise, I had still somehow ended up being forced into keeping really bad secrets from everyone that I should have been open with. The thought made me want to throw up, even as I pressed one fist to my forehead.

Jaq nuzzled at my ear, making a quiet, questioning squeak. With a little smile, I retrieved a couple of little metal washers from my pocket and fed one to each of them. “You guys did great,” I assured them. “Trust me, you’re totally the MVPs of this team.”

Winking at Herbie, I reminded him, “Gotta let your brothers win sometimes.”

Sitting there on one rock, with a much better, and more handsome rock in my hand, I turned my head to look out over the desert. What planet did we we just get sent to? I wondered. And how hard is it going to be to contact the others?

Well, it actually wouldn’t be that hard, come to think of it. If nothing else, Vanessa could cast her mind to her father, or completely recall to him, and let him know where we were. As soon as we figured out where here actually was, at least.

Somewhere around five minutes passed, and I was pretty sure it would’ve been even longer if there hadn’t been the fear of a bigger force showing up. But I eventually heard my name being called, and belatedly realized that in trying to avoid eavesdropping, I had missed them saying it a couple times before that.

So, I slowly picked myself up and walked that way while tucking Herbie back into my pocket. The others were all sitting there watching me as I approached. Sariel had her arms around them, holding tightly as she gave me a soft smile.

She looked, despite the situation, like she was still right on the edge. Her face was paler than seemed healthy, and her eyes had a hard, haunted look. As a tumbleweed went drifting by in the slight breeze, I saw her gaze snap that way, every muscle in her body suddenly stiffening, as if she was ready for another fight.

It passed almost as soon as it had come, and she returned her eyes to me. “Felicity Chambers.” Her voice was soft, if a bit hoarse, and her eyes, though still haunted, took on a kind look. “I must say, I was not expecting this to be how we met.” As she spoke, the woman pulled Tabbris closer to her, while the girl herself nuzzled up against her mother’s arm.

Flushing a little bit, I coughed. “To tell you the truth, ma’am, I wasn’t really expecting to meet like like this either.” Without thinking, I added, “Even when I dreamt about meeting Artemis when I was little, it wasn’t really like this.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Sariel’s smile grew from obvious curiosity. “You dreamt about meeting a Greek mythological figure?”

My blush deepened, as I mumbled, “I was reading this book series and–never mind. You, um. You’re….” Stopping myself, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I guess I just never really expected to get this far. I don’t know what to say.”

“I know what to say to you,” Sariel replied then. “Thank you.” Her gaze met mine pointedly. “Thank you for accepting my daughter once you found out about her. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help her. There are… many who would not have done the same in your situation. You have been put through a lot, and you have reacted… admirably.”

My head shook quickly at that. “Trust me, she’s done a lot more for me than I’ve done for her.” After pausing briefly, I added, “I guess we just make good partners.”

The woman sighed a little bit. “There is so much more that we need to talk about,” she muttered under her breath, “so much more that I want to say. But that will come in time. Right now, we must find out where we are and get a message to… to Haiden before the soldiers return in actual force. There will be coordinates listed on the transport.” When she said her husband’s name, there was an aching in both her voice and gaze that gave me a faint idea of how much she missed the man. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “And as soon as we know where they are, I can let Dad, Uncle Apollo, Aunt Larissa, and Athena know.”

I thought that Sariel sucked in a little breath at that, her gaze dropping a bit with a look of guilt. “Apollo… Larissa…” She swallowed slightly, clearly a lot more troubled than she was actually letting her kids (who were mostly blinded by the joy of actually being with their mother) see. “Yes, yes, we… we need to re… um, regroup.”

There was obviously a lot of complicated feelings there. Feelings that we, as usual, didn’t have time to get into. Instead, together (very together in the others’ cases, since it didn’t seem like Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris wanted to get very far away from their mother any time soon), we moved quickly back to the transport. I was really hoping that we could get Athena’s people here quickly enough to move all these pods so that we could free everyone in them before too many of Kushiel’s people (or other Seosten forces) showed up. Either way, we needed to hurry.

Thankfully, Sariel knew where she was going. The woman stepped right up to a console at one end of the transport tube. Her fingers danced over it, and she seemed to be putting in some kind of override passcode. I caught a glimpse of the woman inputting not her own name, but Puriel’s.

Before I could ask how she’d managed that, the woman spoke quietly. “The transport was a one-way trip. There’s no way to send it back or go through again. But where…” She started a bit then, eyes widening. “That… can’t be right.” Quickly, she input the same thing, staring the words on the screen for a moment before trying for a third time. “No, that has to be wrong.”

“What is it, Mama?” Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s waist, blinked up at her. “Are we in a bad place?”

Tristan’s head bobbed at that. “Yeah, just how deep in Seosten space are we?”

“We’re not,” Sariel answered, shock still filling her voice. “We’re not deep in Seosten space.”

Frowning, Vanessa asked, “What do you mean? If we’re not deep in Seosten space, where are we?”

Turning away from the console, Sariel answered her children. “Earth.

“We’re on Earth.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-08

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Things moved quickly then. Or, at least as quickly as things could move while time was frozen. That bit was a little confusing. The point was, we were busy.

Jophiel and Elisabet set out to lay a series of powerful spells on the four of us. The spells would, as they had already said, make it impossible for us to tell anyone about what had happened here. Even if we were possessed by someone else, or someone used some kind of mind reading power on us, that particular secret would stay safe. No matter what we did, we would not be able to let any of the others know about any of this.

I hated it. I hated the idea of keeping secrets, even against my will. But if it was down between that and losing the chance to save Sariel, there was no contest. This was about saving their mother. That was what mattered, not my comfort or preference.

Once the two women were satisfied that the spells had taken hold, Jophiel stepped back. “Okay,” she announced then, “that should do.”

Elisabet spoke up. “But remember, we will be monitoring these spells. And if we discover that you have been attempting to disable or circumvent them, we will consider that a violation of our agreement.”

Jophiel inclined her head. “In which case, we will be forced to consider other measures, including permanent relocation with us, and the suspension of our own agreement not to speak of certain things to our own people, such as young Tabbris’s existence.”

Grimacing at that, I gave a quick nod. “We’re not going to try to break the spell,” I assured them. “You keep your side of the deal, and we’ll keep our side. Help us save Sariel.”

Giving a faint smile, Elisabet noted, “As we said, doing anything too overt would be inadvisable. Our cover must remain intact. So, the most we will do is ensure that Apollo arrives in time to create that distraction. You must be the ones to take advantage of that properly. You get to Sariel and awaken her. The code for the console on the side of the chamber is bottom left, bottom left, middle, top right, bottom right, top left.”

Vanessa and Tristan both repeated that verbatim, the latter stopping to blink afterward. “Huh,” he muttered while tilting his head, “I guess I’ve got a perfect memory now too.” A smile crossed his face briefly. “Sweet, school is going to be so easy now.”

Making a face as though she was choosing to ignore that for the time being, Vanessa addressed the women. “How are we supposed to get close to pods with all of those guards?”

Jophiel answered simply. “Consider that one of your first tests. Apollo will be quite busy distracting Kushiel. It will be up to you to get past the rest of the soldiers and unlock the pod to awaken Sariel. We truly wish you luck.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, “trust me, we’re wishing ourselves luck right now too.” With a sigh, I looked back to the others for a moment before belatedly looking back. “Hey, if time has been frozen, does that mean that the spell stopping Tabbris from possessing me is still on, or…”

Before answering, Jophiel took her… partner’s (though I was pretty sure by that point that there was far more to that situation than simple partners) hand and the two remerged. I wasn’t even sure whether it was Jophiel or Elisabet speaking then, as she/they finally replied, “The time limit of the effect continues to count down even while time is stopped like this, if you are not among those who are frozen. What truly matters is how much time has passed for you personally. And in this case, the effect will expire right… hm, in… thirty seconds.” She/they paused briefly, noting absently, “If you had waited slightly longer to ask, that would have been very impressive timing.”

Shrugging at that, I managed a weak, “Sorry to disappoint you. If there’s nothing else, we’ll get back to saving Sariel, and the rest of these people, from your psycho piece of shit former crewmate.” Even as I said it, there was a voice inside me that was frantically saying to shut up and not antagonize them. And this time, I knew that it wasn’t Tabbris.

If they were offended, however, it didn’t show on Elisabet’s face. She remained entirely expressionless, save for a tiny, almost imperceptible smile that somehow seemed almost as dangerous as if she had glared at me. “As we said,” she/they replied simply, “We wish you luck. And now, the effect should be ended.”

Testing that, I took Tabbris’s hand. A moment later, she was possessing me once more. It might have been silly, but I immediately relaxed just a little. Knowing that my little sister was out of sight, and where it would be much harder to actually get to her, automatically made me feel better. That and I felt more like myself when she was there. Losing her made me feel somehow incomplete, even after the time that we had spent at the Aelaestiam base with her separated from me.

“Ten seconds,” Jophiel or Elisabet announced then, once Tabbris and I were back together. “After we disappear, you will have ten seconds before the time-stop fades. Then that door right there will open, and it will be up to you to reach Sariel’s tube and release her while Apollo faces Kushiel.”

“Are you going to give us a way to contact you?” I asked hesitantly. “I mean, for this training thing you were talking about.”

For a moment, the woman’s eyes found me, and I wondered once more which of them was doing the talking. And if it really mattered. “We will contact you when the time is right,” she/they informed us. “And when we do call for you, it would be for the best if you did not make us wait any longer than necessary.”

Before we could say anything else to that, the woman (women?) disappeared, vanishing from sight.

“That’s that,” Tristan muttered. “Now comes the fun part. Are we ready?”

“We better be,” I replied, “Because here we–” Before I could finish the sentence, the door in front of us suddenly whoosed open. The time-stop was gone, and we had to move.

Together, the four of us (three if you only counted those of us in separate bodies) ran through that open doorway. The first thing that I noticed was that the pod that contained Sariel had already been pushed up into the transport thing. Kushiel had her back to us as she put one foot on the ramp, while a small army of soldiers stood in our way. The woman herself wasn’t even looking at us, like we weren’t worth paying that much attention to. She simply started to walk up the ramp without a single glance backward. She would leave her soldiers to deal with us, while she took off with Sariel and the rest of the prisoners. There was no way that we could get through all of them and to the transport in time to save Sariel, or anyone else.

At least, there wouldn’t have been. But at that exact second, there was a burst of fire on that same ramp, and a man appeared. It was Apollo. He held a hand up, and I saw a ring on one of his fingers glow with a green light before Kushiel was suddenly picked up by an invisible force and thrown backward about fifteen feet. She landed on her feet, skidding a bit before stopping.

“Leaving so soon, oh original wicked stepmother template?” the man asked flatly. “We haven’t even had a chance to get caught up yet.” He slowly began to walk down from the ramp, approaching her. “So, what have you been up to? Still a completely amoral sociopath with delusions of grandeur? Well, you know what they say, stick with what you know.”

Kushiel gave the man a sharp look. From behind her back, she drew a dagger and a short sword. Both were incredibly ornate looking. The blades looked like they were made of some kind of blue gemstone rather than metal, while the handles themselves were gold.

“You realize, of course,” she began slowly with a lazy glance our way, “that any damage you attempt to inflict upon me, will be reflected onto those dear, determined children. Or perhaps,” the woman added thoughtfully, “any damage I inflict upon myself.” With those words, Kushiel raised the dagger to her own stomach, toying with it there. “After all, I can survive what they cannot.”

Apollo’s smile was grim and humorless. “You always were a coward,” he informed her. “I should have made you the goddess of hiding behind hostages.”

Still holding the dagger near her own stomach, the woman retorted, “And I should have insisted that you be made a permanent example of when you first betrayed us. Your flayed body should have been dragged through the streets of every city on Elohim, to show that proditors will not be tolerated. What you utterly failed to do in life, inspire our people to greater heights, your punishment and death could finally have achieved.”

If the words bothered him at all, Apollo didn’t show it. He simply lifted his chin slightly before replying, “I suppose if I can’t hurt you without hurting them, we’ll just have to handle this a different way.” With that, the man’s other hand snapped up, and I saw a different ring glow yellow. That yellow light shot from the ring to encompass the woman, and I saw her suddenly go rigid. Her expression, already angry, turned furious as she clearly strained to move at all. The dagger in her hand inched slightly away from her stomach, then returned a bit closer, then moved even further way before wavering back and forth.

Apollo was holding her. Whatever spell he had used, it paralyzed the woman and held her trapped in place. He wasn’t actively hurting her, and he was stopping her from hurting herself.

The rest of Kushiel’s forces, however, weren’t so paralyzed. They raced to attack the man, who defended himself with one hand while keeping his other one occupied holding Kushiel in place.

But he wouldn’t be able to do that forever. Every time the man had to divert his attention too much from focusing on holding Kushiel in place, the woman’s dagger moved a tiny bit closer toward her own stomach. Then Apollo would deal with that threat and focus once more, forcing her hand back again. He was fighting these guys with one hand basically tied behind his back.

We had to help. And the best way that we could actually do that would be to go straight through these soldiers, and up onto that transport to grab Sariel. Apollo was buying us time to do just that, but we had to go now, before he lost control of Kushiel. It was a realization that we all seemed to reach at once, brief glances exchanged between us before Vanessa blurted to me, “Give us a few seconds to make an opening to that transport, then go!”

Before I could say anything to that, the twins launched into action. Tristan’s cannon opened up first, another of those massive lasers that he had been charging up through that entire time filling the air as it shot toward the largest of the figures standing in our way. And this time, the laser actually did its job. The nine-foot tall reptilian figure was half-enveloped by the shot, howling briefly before collapsing backward with most of his upper body burned or just missing entirely.

Meanwhile, the boy’s other hand snapped out and down. While his aura flared up and he staggered a little, he still retained enough focus to keep his hand in position while Vanessa hopped up. Her foot found his palm, and the boy hurled his sister forward and up into the air.

In mid-air, Vanessa’s whip lashed out, wrapping around the neck of one of the soldiers. Once it was tight, the blonde girl gave a hard yank that hauled the man sideways to crash into one of the other soldiers, tangling them up together before they could retaliate.

Meanwhile, where that soldier had just been, the whip had left behind a glowing green orb that floated there in the air for a brief second. Then a couple of the other soldiers got close enough to it that the orb exploded into a cloud of poison gas that sent them staggering back, coughing and choking.

As her whip snapped back toward her, Vanessa landed easily on both feet. She bent over then, whip snapping out in the other direction to wrap around the ankle of one of yet another soldier before she yanked his feet out from under him and dragged the man to her.

At the same time, as his sister was bent like that, Tristan leapt to land with one foot on her back. His free hand snapped out to shoot a feather-like metal dart into the throat of a soldier who had been racing toward Vanessa with his laser-sword raised. Meanwhile, a powerful shot from Tristan’s cannon in the opposite direction forced a handful of other troops to dive out of the way.

Vanessa straightened then, at the same time that Tristan jumped from her back. The boy was sent higher into the air while flooding the ground around them with a series of rapid, light shots from his cannon that drove the remaining soldiers back a little bit more.

It was clear. Or at least as clear as it was going to get. To the left, I could see Kushiel and Apollo locked in their struggle. It was clearly all the man could do to deal with the few troops who were still trying to attack him, while also holding the psycho Olympian woman paralyzed by his spell. And the twins had most of the rest of the troops thoroughly focused on them, at least for the moment. Which left Tabbris and me to get onto that transport and free Sariel.

Everyone else had worked to make this opening. We had to take advantage of it. Gripping my staff with one hand, I banished all of my doubts about the deal that we had made with Jophiel and Elisabet, and sprinted for the transport with everything I had.

There were still guards in the way. Vanessa and Tristan were distracting the majority of them, but a few kept their focus on blocking access to the transport. Which meant that I was going to have to go right through them. And honestly, at that point, I didn’t have a problem with that.

Three of the soldiers shot at me, two slugs and a handful of lasers filling the air even as I dropped into a roll. Hitting the ground, I triggered a burst from my staff that sent me sliding forward before tilting it to pop myself up right in front of the men. In mid-air, I spun, slamming the side of my staff into the face of one of the men to knock him into another one. As they staggered, Tabbris made my right hand snap up to create a portal that swallowed up a laser from the third soldier, sending it through the exit portal behind him so that he shot himself in the back of the head.

My partner suppressed the pleasure rush from that kill, even as I landed practically on top of the other two soldiers, who had staggered and fallen together. Spinning the staff around in my hand, I drove the bladed end down through both of them, skewering the two together as they cried out.

Two more guys were between me and the transport. As they came for me, I shoved the staff, still embedded through the other two soldiers, over and angled it a bit before launching the grapple. It flew out, passing over the men’s heads before I hit the button to make it stop. The grapple embedded itself solidly in midair, snapping taut before it started to haul in the line. With my tight grip on the staff, I was yanked forward and up, flying over the incoming soldier’s heads before hitting the button to make the grapple release so that I could drop down behind them.

Now there was nothing in my way. Still, I snapped my staff backward, depositing a handful of quick mines to keep the men busy, even as I ran up the ramp at full speed, the sound of my racing feet loud against the metal. Sariel. Sariel. I just had to get to Sariel.

Reaching the top of the ramp, I finally found myself in the transport itself. From the outside, it had looked like a large, long tube. And from the inside… It was basically the same, kind of like the interior of a cargo plane with absolutely no seats or any other amenities. Instead, both sides were lined with dozens of those pods with frozen people inside of them, leaving a narrow walkway right up the middle.

Mama! Tabbris’s voice blurted inside me, even as she brought my head up to focus on the pod at the far end, on the right. Sariel was there. She was there. Ignoring everything else, I ran once more, sprinting down that line of pods on my way to the one in question. We had to get to it.

We had to get to it.

We got to it. Unfortunately, we got to it a little too fast. Three steps away from the pod, an invisible force suddenly picked me up and sent me flying face first into the thing with enough force to leave me dazed.

“Problem?” a voice demanded cockily, and my head turned a little bit to see a man standing there. He had black, scale-covered skin, with a purple, mohawk-like fin going up over his bald head like that Savage Dragon character I’d seen a few comics about. His hand was up, as the man obviously held me off the ground to keep me pinned against that pod. Nearby, I could see the small console with the buttons on it. It was so close, but I couldn’t move my hand to get to it. I couldn’t move anything.

Do not jump out of me! I ordered Tabbris before focusing on anything else. He’ll just grab you too, and more people will know about you. Do not jump out and try to hit those buttons yourself!

“Now,” the telekinetic Alter began. “I think we can all have a little break until–” In mid-sentence, the man abruptly pivoted. The hand that wasn’t holding out toward me snapped up, and I saw both Tristan and Vanessa as the two were yanked off their feet before they were sent flying toward me, down the length of the transport. The twins crashed into one of the other pods nearby.

“Interruptions are annoying,” the man declared then. “Let’s not have any more.”

With that, he released us briefly. As we dropped to the floor, the man’s hand snapped out to hit a button near him, and the ramp suddenly slid shut behind him, sealing Vanessa, Tristan, and me in. A second later, while we were still orienting ourselves, the whole transport suddenly shook violently.

It was activating. The man had activated the transport! Wherever the so-called ‘prototype’ version of this Pathmaker-like thing was connected to, we were about to be there. And I was pretty sure we weren’t going to like it.

Tabbris took control of my hand then, making it snap up toward the console. Unfortunately, the telekinetic man realized what I was doing, and I felt several of my fingers snap painfully while my hand was stopped in mid-air, before I was hurled up against the ceiling of the transport, then back to the floor. The staff, which I had dropped, lay nearby but out of reach.

Vanessa, in the shape of a raven, flew past my face and straight for the console. But the man’s telekinesis caught hold of her as well, and I heard a pained squawk escape her.

Before he could crush the much smaller figure, I managed to make a quick portal in the air by my feet, with the other end next to the man’s head. Grunting, I kicked out hard through that portal, connecting solidly and making him stagger. Vanessa instantly resumed her human shape as she was released, hand grabbing for the console before a wave of the man’s hand sent her tumbling head over heels.

It was at that moment that the shaking transport abruptly stopped. The far end of the tube opened up, giving us a glimpse of a gray, cloud-covered sky.

Tristan was back on his feet first. Rolling forward, he brought his cannon up and fired off a shot at the man. Unfortunately, at the last second, the man used his telekinesis to shove Tristan’s arm toward Vanessa. The other girl barely managed to roll out of the way.

A moment later, all three of us were caught in the man’s power. And then Vanessa and I got a much better look at that sky we’d caught a glimpse of, as the two of us were  hurled end over end out of the transport. We flew a good thirty feet before crashing and rolling along a combination of sand, dirt, and sagebrush. Wherever we were, it was some kind of desert planet.

Groaning, Vanessa and I picked ourselves up, only to find that our situation had somehow gotten even worse. The man who had been throwing us around so easily was there on the ramp that would lead back into the ship. He had Tristan still in his invisible grasp, floating a few feet in front of him.

And all around us, weapons raised and ready, were a couple dozen more fresh and ready soldiers who had been waiting on this end of the transport system. They were ready, and we were surrounded. Worse, that transport was supposed to be a one-time use thing.

The telekinetic-man bounced Tristan up and down in the air a little. His tone was mocking. “Can you fly, little one?” he asked before chuckling. “Let’s see, shall we?”

Then, before any of us could do a thing, the man thrust his hand into the air. Tristan, with a yelp, was sent soaring backward and up into the sky. He passed over our heads, over the hill in the distance, and just kept going.

“Tristan!” Vanessa cried out. The blonde girl spun to go after her brother, only to almost run into the line of soldiers that were surrounding us.

“Go,” the man on the ramp ordered a few of them. “I slowed his fall enough that he should have survived… mostly. Find him, drag him back here.” To Vanessa and I, he added, “And if you two are quite finished with the pointless displays, we can discuss your surrender. Or the next time I toss one of you, it will be without slowing you down.” With a small smile, the man, accompanied by the dozens of soldiers all the way around the two of us, began to move in.

I didn’t have my weapon. Tristan was… out there somewhere. We were cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, overpowered, and… in a word, lost.

“Hey, asshole!”

The voice came from the top of the ramp, and every eye snapped to where Tristan was standing. Not out in the desert, there at the top of the ramp. The boy lifted his chin as every weapon jerked his way, his voice casual.

“Guess who finally figured out how to use his recall power?”

And then two shards of glass came flying over the boy’s shoulder, arcing perfectly in the air before embedding themselves through each of the telekinetic man’s eyes, and deep into his brain. As his body collapsed, a figure stepped out of the transport and moved beside Tristan. A figure wearing a form-fitting red jumpsuit, with her blonde hair cut very short, almost up to her ears. 

“I can’t tell you how tired I am of people trying to hurt my family,” Sariel Moon announced to the gathered soldiers as they stared at her.

“But maybe… I can show you.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-07

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Over the past half of a year, I had been in a lot of extremely dangerous and seemingly inescapable situations. More than my fair share, I would argue.

But this, standing here with my pseudo-little sister exposed and revealed in front of what I quickly realized it was probably the most powerful Seosten infiltrator on Earth… My mind just stopped. It was Elisabet. It was one of the Committee members. She was standing in front of me, possessed by one of our enemies, our main enemy, probably, and she had seen Tabbris. She knew that Tabbris had been possessing me.

She knew.

I was not really the type of person who prayed, even before I had found out about all of the supernatural stuff. It just wasn’t the kind of person I was, it wasn’t something I believe in. And I was even less likely to beg.

For Tabbris, I would have done either. For the one in a trillion or so chance that the woman in front of me would listen to a desperate plea, I would beg. For the one in several trillion chance that there was something out there that could hear and care if I prayed for help, I would drop to my knees and do it. For Tabbris.

“Y… you….” Vanessa and I stammered almost together, our voices shaking to the point of almost being incomprehensible.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked back and forth between us and the woman in question. His voice was utterly clueless. “Who?”

That was enough to make the boy’s twin jerk her gaze to him, blurting, “Elisabet?! One of the Committee members? You were supposed to memorize them for Professor Ross!”

“Well, good news!” Tristan shot back while pointing at the woman. “I’m definitely not gonna forget who she is now!”

“You never pay attention to the homework that you’re supposed to b–” In mid-sentence, Vanessa abandoned her apparently totally put-on argument, spinning around behind her brother while Tristan himself lifted his arm cannon and began loosing a handful of the most powerful shots I had ever seen him fire. Bobbi-Bobbi had apparently been charging up that entire time (probably in preparation for Kushiel), because Tristan fired three or four shots that nearly filled the entire small corridor that we were in.

Vanessa, meanwhile, was already frantically calling for help over the comm badge. Using her brother as cover, she blurted out our situation and that we needed someone there now.

The possessed woman didn’t dodge a single shot. Nor did she block them, or stop them in any way. She simply stood there, allowing the powerful lasers to slam into her repeatedly, and do… nothing. There was absolutely no sign that the woman had even been touched. There was no forcefield, nothing. The room-leveling lasers hit her straight on and didn’t leave so much as a mark.

Her voice, as she spoke, was calm and soft once the shots faded. It almost sounded sympathetic. “I’m afraid that your calls will go unheeded,” she announced. “I have surrounded this facility in a bubble of frozen time. This way, we may have a private conversation without being, shall we say, interrupted.”

That was how little Tristan’s most powerful shots had affected the woman. She didn’t acknowledge it whatsoever. It was like she hadn’t even noticed it at all. She didn’t get mad about being shot, she utterly and completely ignored it. I would have said that he might as well have been chucking pebbles at a tank, but there was a greater chance of damaging the tank. This was a leadership-level Seosten, several thousand years old at least, possessing one of the Crossroads leadership Committee. By themselves, each would have been counted within the top most powerful beings on any planet they were on. Together like this, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how completely and utterly fucked we were.

And speaking of completely and utterly fucked, what the fuck did she mean, she put a time-stop bubble over the entire facility? And was acting like it wasn’t really any strain at all. I hadn’t even been able to tell that she was doing anything like that. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

The woman then added, after clearly seeing my hand reaching out toward Tabbris, “And she will not be able to possess you for a short time. When the expulsion effect hits,” she gestured around the room, “it prevents those who were expelled from using their possession ability for a short window. Not too unlike the spell that you were taught by Gabriel Prosser, and that his group, in turn, was taught by Auriel, actually.”

Taking a different tact in that case, I stepped in front of the younger girl, with my staff up. “I know this doesn’t mean anything,” I announced. “I know that I’m a little bug and you’re a truck. But I just want to let you know, that you will have to kill me to take her. J-just so we’re on the same page.” With those last few words, my voice shook audibly. It was a lie, really. She could freeze us and take Tabbris whenever she wanted. If she even cared about not killing us. Still, I said it. Not so much for her, really. I said it for Tabbris. I wanted her to know that, impossible situation or not, I would never choose to abandon her.

“She’s right.” That was Tristan, as the boy stepped beside me. “You’ll have to kill all of us first.”

“Stop it!” Tabbris blurted, her voice panicked and terrified. “Don’t listen to them! Don’t hurt them! I’ll go with you, I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt them, please!” There were tears in her eyes, and she clung to my arm from behind me.

Vanessa shook her head then, stepping up beside her brother. “No,” she said quietly to her little sister, “They’re right. She’s not taking you unless she goes through us first to do it.”

“Take her?” the woman echoed, her voice actually sounding just a little bit surprised. “You believe I wish to…” Trailing off, she gave a slight nod. “Yes, of course. You would think that, wouldn’t you?”

It was Vanessa who spoke up then, her voice shaking as much as mine had. “Y-you’re saying you d-don’t want to take her?”

“And you’re part of the Crossroads Committee?” Tristan put in. “I mean, your host is. You, you’re one of the Seosten leaders. Manakel?”

The woman gave him a sharp look at that. “My boy,” she announced, “you may do a lot of things throughout this conversation. Some may be intelligent, others decidedly not. But the single most unintelligent and dangerous thing you could possibly do is to mistake me for that man again.”

Despite myself, I gave a little shrug at that. “Manakel or not, what’s the difference? You’re possessing one of the Committee members, so you must be pretty important. You’re probably the one in charge on Earth. Just another powerful person justifying enslaving your host.”

“Enslaving?” As she finished echoing that, a glowing figure stepped out of the woman. The glow faded, and I saw what was quite possibly the single most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Tall, with long, cascading brown hair, she reminded me of Avalon, though my girl’s hair was darker.

It was the real Elisabet who spoke up first, her expression never changing. “I,” she informed us, “am not a slave.” The Spanish woman raised a hand to point to me. “I am no more a slave to her than you are a slave to that one.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris.

“I don’t understand.” Vanessa put words to my own thoughts, her expression just as confused as I felt. “You’re… you’re…”

“Working together?” Tristan finished his sister’s words for her, sounding incredulous. “You….you’re helping her do all this? Why? Why would you sell out humanity to this—“

Before he could continue that sentence, the Seosten woman interrupted. “Perhaps,” she started, “I should introduce myself to start. My name is Jophiel. On your planet, I was once known as—”

It was my turn to interrupt. “Aphrodite. Athena told us about you. She also told us that you could make us feel any emotion for you that we feel for anybody else.”

“Yes,” The woman confirmed simply. “And yet, I am not doing so, and will not do so. Because I wish to have a civil conversation with you. A civil conversation,” she corrected, “with all of you. I have not come here to fight or hurt you. And I have certainly not come to take her.” Her head nodded toward Tabbris. “If you will be silent for a moment, I will explain. Your grand gestures are very inspiring, truly. But they are not accomplishing anything. While it is not so difficult for me to hold this time-stop, I would truly rather not do so forever. Now, you may either continue to waste time, such as it were, or stop and listen.”

For a moment, the four of us exchanged brief, helpless looks. Finally, I lifted my chin to look at the two women. “What do you want?” I asked, trying to keep as much of the tremble out of my voice as I could and failing pretty much miserably.

It was Elisabet who spoke. “As I said, I am not her slave. We are… partners, in every way. It is our belief that the only way that humans or Seosten, or the rest of the civilized universe for that matter, will survive the Fomorian threat, is through working together.”

My arms flailed at that despite myself. “You want humans and Seosten to be partners?! Then why aren’t you working with Athena? Why the hell are you helping to enslave all of humanity under your thumb? That doesn’t sound like partnership to me. And you’re on the Committee. You could help make them back off of all that killing every Alter they see thing. A lot of them are innocent, and you know it!”

Jophiel inclined her head slightly. “You misunderstand. I do believe that humans and Seosten should be together. I believe that the place of both of our species is at the tip of the spear to defeat the Fomorians. But I also believe that our place, together as partners, is in leading this universe. Our place is to control and protect every species. We are the parents, and they are the children. And while I will readily admit that our people have gone too far in some cases, or even many cases, that does not change that fact. We are the strong hand that will put things to right. The only hand that can stay the knife of the Fomorian monsters.”

Elisabet spoke. “The Seosten have done some bad things. But the Fomorians do, and will do, much worse. They will annihilate every species in the universe that is not them, or their monstrous creations. They will kill everything, and the Seosten are the only people with the slightest prayer of stopping them. You may disagree with their methods, but the fact remains that at least species under Seosten control continue to exist.”

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “But you haven’t beaten them,” I pointed out while looking to Jophiel. “You’ve had hundreds of thousands of years, and you still haven’t beaten them. Actually, I’m kind of getting the impression that you guys are gradually losing.”

If she was offended that, the Seosten woman didn’t show it. She simply inclined her head in a slight nod. “Correct,” she replied softly. “That is precisely why we need to change things. And the key to that change lies in the four of you.”

Before we could ask what she meant, Elisabet took over, her eyes on Vanessa and Tristan. “You are living, breathing proof that our species is fully compatible with the Seosten. This partnership, this joining of our species that we wish to facilitate, is exemplified partly within you.”

“And partly,” Jophiel put in with a gesture to Tabbris and me, “within you. Vanessa and Tristan demonstrate our species’ genetic compatibility. You two are the other side of that equation, the key that we have been looking for for so very long. You are the proof that our peoples’ working together as partners in full cooperation, would be a far more effective weapon against the Fomorians than our current model.”

Elisabet nodded once. “We have been looking for a very, very long time for a way to illustrate our point and convince the Seraphim that the key to moving forward is with the Seosten as partners with the humans. We will be able to save this universe from the Fomorians, but only once our people are truly united.”

Before I could say anything to that, Vanessa spoke up once more. “So, we’re just supposed to believe that you don’t want to hurt us? We’re just supposed to take your word that it isn’t some kind of trick?”

Jophiel’s response to that was to give the other girl what honestly looked like a genuine smile. “My dear, brilliant girl, we have been waiting so very long to speak with you directly.”

“Or at least,” Elisabet corrected, “we’ve been waiting to speak to you like this. As opposed to speaking to you like…” As she trailed off, the Spanish woman’s face and body began to change dramatically. She grew a few inches, her hair shortened into a gray bun, while wrinkles appeared on her face. She took on a matronly grandmother appearance, like Dorothy from the Golden Girls.

Vanessa’s reaction to that was immediate. The blonde girl’s eyes went wide, and she blurted, “Mrs. Reibach?!”

That made Tristan’s head snap around. “The woman who was working with you in the foster system? The one who gave you those tests and took you to get ice cream every week?”

“She came to talk to me in the… the hospital,” Vanessa murmured, not taking her eyes off the woman. “She was nice to me.”

It was Jophiel who spoke, while Elisabet resumed her own appearance. “We have never meant you or your brother any harm. Why do you think you were never taken by the other Seosten? The half-human daughter of none other than Sariel herself? If nothing else, Kushiel would have given quite a lot to get her hands on you. In fact, she made quite the push for it over the years.”

Elisabet nodded. “That is precisely why we came here. When the two of you disappeared, we feared that she had gone behind our backs and acquired you herself. We came to ensure that was not the case. And to rectify it if it was.”

“Finding the other half of our answer,” added Jophiel with a gesture toward Tabbris and me, “was rather surprising. May we possibly have your name, little one?”

I saw no sense in trying to hide it or anything, so when the girl looked to me questioningly, I gave her a very slight nod. She looked back to the women and tentatively answered, “T-Tabbris.”

That brought a smile to Jophiel’s face. “That is a fine name for one such as you. You are a beautiful girl, and you look quite a bit like your mother.”

Of course they had put that much together, I realized. It wasn’t that hard.

Elisabet was nodding. “As she said, learning of your existence and situation here was an accident. But a useful one.”

My head shook a little. “Look, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m jumpy about anyone calling me useful, let alone my partner. So I don’t know what kind of torture plan you’ve got cooked up here, but…”

“Torture?” Jophiel echoed. “Dear Felicity, we have no desire to torture you. We do not even wish to hurt you. We wish to train you. Both of you. All four of you, to be quite honest.”

Elisabet nodded. “And when you are fully trained, when you are ready, we will take you to the Seraphim and show them that a humanity partnered with the Seosten is far more effective at defeating the Fomorians than a humanity enslaved by the Seosten.”

Vanessa spoke then. “But you’re not just working with Athena because you still think that the Seosten are better than other species. You just think that humans can be up there too. You’ve extended the pedestal to fit two species instead of one.”

Jophiel’s head shook. “Given time and opportunity, it is quite likely that many other species could reach the level of the Seosten. But, the Fomorians will not be giving them that time nor opportunity. They will kill them all. The only chance in stopping those creatures lies in the power of the Seosten. But to do that, we must become as strong as possible. Amends may be made once the threat has been dealt with.”

Coughing, I muttered, “I feel like people have been using that last line to justify atrocities since the beginning of time. There will always be another threat to beat, and there will always be an excuse to be an asshole. And quite frankly, I don’t think that your kind of training is exactly what I’m looking for. And I really don’t have any desire to go see these Seraphim at any point. Which is kind of a shame, because I’m pretty sure that if I get one more powerful adult mentor, I win a free cookie.”

The two women simply smiled a little bit at that before Jophiel spoke up. “And yet, you have not heard our offer. You see, the bargain that we bring involves…” She turned slightly to point at the door behind her. “… Sariel.”

“Mama?!” Tabbris blurted while taking a step that way, putting herself between Tristan and me. The twins looked just as interested in that announcement.

Jophiel nodded. “Indeed,” she replied. “you see, we would like to strike a bargain with the four of you. First, you will submit to a spell which will render you incapable of knowingly speaking about or otherwise communicating our situation or anything else about us that should be kept private. The spell will also ensure that no one can pull that information from your mind any other way. Our secrets will be safe. As will yours, as long as the deal is honored.”

Elisabet spoke then. “The four of you will also come to regular training sessions with us. You will perform the actions we deem necessary to ensure your readiness for an eventual meeting with the Seraphim. This will require years before you will be fully prepared. And I warn you, you will not always agree with our methods or our requirements. But you will come, and you will be prepared to learn and follow instructions.”

Before any of us could say anything to that, Jophiel took over once more. “In exchange, we will provide an opportunity to save Sariel. You see, as it stands, you will fail. Through that door is not an ordinary ship. It is more akin to the so-called Pathmaker, though a prototype, which at this point, has only one use. Once it is activated, they will be gone. And barring interruptions, it will be activated in five seconds. At his present course of action, Apollo will arrive in six seconds. One second too late.”

Elisabet spoke. “If you agree to this deal, we will ensure that he arrives sooner. Soon enough to interrupt the proceeding and allow you the opportunity to rescue her.”

“It is your choice,” added Jophiel. “Agree to our arrangement, agree to follow our instructions and allow us to prove our point, and we will give you the opportunity to save Sariel. Refuse, and we will leave to find more ways to motivate you once your failure here is complete.”

Again, we exchanged looks. But I knew what we were going to say. It was what we had to say. Because this was their mom. This was Tabbris, Tristan, and Vanessa’s mother. And I knew what I would’ve said if it was about my own.

“Okay,” I announced, echoed by the others.

“You’ve got a deal.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-06

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Please note two things. First, there was a mini-interlude posted  yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. And we also have a contest running for selecting the best joke tag, along with a prize. For details, see my first/top comment at the bottom of that chapter. 

Running through the wide open shuttle bay doors led the eight of us (counting Gidget) into the smoldering remains of what had once been the defense tower. The defense tower whose anti-teleportation effect we had taken out by crashing an entire freaking ship into it.

Gordon was a hybrid. A hybrid. My mind was racing, going a million miles an hour. Even with all that was already going on, I couldn’t just dismiss that from my thoughts. He was part Alter, like Shiori, or the twins. Why hadn’t he told us? Sure, he’d told us why, to avoid adding to all the drama and all that. But seriously? I wanted to shake him. If this wasn’t literally a life and death situation (actually, many lives and many deaths), I probably would have. Sure, it was totally his choice and up to him to share with us, and I wasn’t really mad at him about it or anything. After all, that was a really personal thing. But… but still.

I was discombobulated about it.

The place, or at least this part of it, was in complete ruins. Fires burned everywhere. I could see a few bodies lying here and there, while holes in the walls and ceiling revealed the sky beyond, which allowed the cold arctic wind to come through. Meanwhile, a sick, warbling alarm that sounded like it had seen much better days droned in and out in the background. Red and white lights flickered here and there, valiantly struggling to illuminate what the fires weren’t.

Partway through, the giant bear that was Vanessa began to rapidly shrink. Reflexively, I started to look away as her appearance grew closer to human, but there was no need. A silver necklace that I hadn’t noticed before (it had apparently grown with her and been hidden under all that fur) began to give off a soft white glow for a second. By the time she was in any shape where embarrassment would have been an issue, her clothes somehow magically appeared right back on her body where they had been before.

“Uncle Apollo,” she muttered by way of explanation when she noticed all of us staring.

“I definitely need one of those,” Roxa announced, giving a firm nod. “Mine just holds clothes, it doesn’t automatically put them on me.”  

“As soon as we get out of here with Mom, I’m pretty sure he’ll make anything you want,” the other girl replied. Face half-cast in shadow, she raised a hand to point. “And he said that the entrance to the tunnel should be that way.” I could tell that she was trying very hard not to think about the sounds of fighting that we could still hear from behind us. The thought of anything happening to her father while she was busy saving her mother had to be weighing heavily on the girl.

The tunnel that she had mentioned was supposed to lead from the defense tower where we were, all the way into the lab itself. It was one of very few actual bits of information that Apollo had been able to conjure up out of whatever prophetic future seeing sources he had access to. I still hadn’t been able to get a straight answer out of the Olympian about all that, but I was pretty sure he just enjoyed being mysterious. Either way, he had been confident about the location and usefulness of the tunnel.

Together, we started to move that way, only for Roxa to suddenly stop while snapping her arm up. Her head tilted a little, and I saw her ears twitch slightly. “Wait,” the girl murmured, “there’s something…”

Abruptly, she began to stride off into the darkness, with Gidget trotting behind her. The rest of us looked at one another in confusion for moment before following after them. Eventually, Roxa led us to a pile of rubble that had fallen from a collapsed ceiling above.

“Hey,” Tristan started a bit tentatively, “we really, really need to get into that lab, like, as soon as possible. So-“

Giving a sharp shake of her head, Roxa gestured at the pile. “There’s someone under there,” she declared. “They’re begging for help, can’t you hear them?”

Gordon had his hand up, peering through his thumb and fingers in a circle like a telescope as he nodded. “She’s right,” the boy announced, “there’s someone trapped under there. It’s one of those soldiers. The pile is basically crushing him.”

“If we were fighting him,” Sands pointed out, “we’d kill him anyway. He’s a soldier, one of Kushiel’s. And we’re kind of busy. Every second we waste here is another second that they might get out of here with Sariel.”

It was Vanessa who spoke up then. “So we have to hurry and get him out.” Her face was set. “Yes, I want to get to my mom. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who could just leave someone here to suffer like this to do it. I could never forget that.”

Right, she could never forget anything at all. And associating the rescue of her mother with abandoning someone else to suffer and die like this… Yeah, I could see why she couldn’t do it. When it came time to save my own mother, I wouldn’t want it to be tainted by something like that either, if I had the choice.

“Besides,” Roxa informed us, “the last thing Apollo said to me before we started all this was to not ignore what I hear. I don’t know where he’s pulling these little prophecy things from or why they have to be so vague and scattershot, but ‘don’t ignore what you hear’ seems pretty straight forward right now, doesn’t it?”

“She’s got a point,” I agreed with a shrug. “Ignoring it sounds like a bad idea. Especially when she puts it like that.”

Jazz was already holding her hands out to create a couple of those gravity balls above the rubble. She grimaced then as the pile shifted just a little. “I can make it lighter,” the girl announced, “but it’s too heavy to pull off him entirely.”

“You make it lighter,” I agreed, before looking to Sands. “If you get on that side and use your mace to start building a little wall under the lip of the rubble there out of the same material that it’s made from, you could start making the wall higher to push it up out of the way. The rest of us can take the other side and pull it up there. Except Gordon. You use your x-ray vision to keep an eye on the guy and be ready. The second the rubble is up far enough, reach in and pull him out. You might do damage to him, but they’ve got healing. All that matters is that he survives.”

Gordon met my gaze for a moment. I could tell he wanted to know what I was thinking about that little revelation, his eyes twitching just a little before he looked away with a little nod, his voice quiet. “Got it.”

The others nodded, and we moved up to do just that. Jazz focused on making the gravity orbs and pushing them up to pull the rubble as much as she could. Meanwhile, Sands put a wall under the one side, while Roxa, Vanessa, Tristan, and I heaved up on the other side. Gordon crouched, one hand in front of his face as he watched through the rubble with his other hand ready to grab the guy.

It took some effort. This chunk of broken ceiling was really heavy, and really big. No wonder we hadn’t been able to hear the guy from under it. Aside from Roxa, anyway.

But eventually, we managed it.  The rubble shifted a little, and Gordon made a noise as he reached in to catch hold of the guy. I heard feet scrambling and then a cry of pain as the boy hauled out the armored, uniformed soldier. He kept pulling until they were a couple feet away from the rubble so that we could let it drop. Which it did, with a loud, almost deafening clang.

The soldier lay there panting and groaning. One of his legs was clearly heavily broken, and I could see where the rubble had been crushing him. But we didn’t have time to worry about that. We’d gotten him out of there, and now we had to go.

“Come on,” I urged the others, “We’ve gotta get to that tunnel. Sariel needs help too.”

“Wait.” It was the injured soldier. He held a hand up, his body trembling a little. “You… ugh, you saved my life,” he pointed out a bit painfully. “I’ve got to tell you, that tunnel is trapped. Kushiel, she knew someone would use it, so she’s got all these spells on it. You walk through there like that, and you’ll be disintegrated before you even get halfway through it.” Shifting a little with another grunt of pain, the man dug in the pocket of his uniform and withdrew three little crystals, which he held out to us. “Take these, anyone holding one can get through the tunnel. But I’ve only got the three. I… I owe you that much.” I couldn’t see the man’s face through the helmet that he wore, but he sounded like he was barely conscious.

“Do we believe him?” Sands asked flatly.

I shrugged at that, while taking the three crystals from the man. “We don’t really have much of a choice. I’d rather not be disintegrated.” And I kind of doubted that the man just happened to be carryng around a handful of crystals like this that would make our situation worse.

After I had taken the crystals from the man, he slumped a little more. I could see his chest rise and fall a bit, but he seemed to be unconscious. Briefly, I hoped that he would be okay. Yeah, he was an enemy, but he had also helped us. Be it out of a sense of obligation or whatever, he’d still done it. So I hoped that he didn’t die.

I hoped that… I wished that none of them had had to die. Even the ones back on the ship. Fighting… in the middle of it, I had killed without much thought. It was kill or be killed. But now, afterward, when the adrenaline had faded just a little bit… They were slaves of the Seosten. Sure, there would be those who were eager to fight and kill, but still… there would also be those who weren’t. There would be those who–

“Only three of them,” Jazz noted then, snapping me out of my distraction. “What do we do with just three?”

“It gets worse,” Gordon quietly put in. The boy was holding his hands up to his face once more, looking off toward one of the walls. “In a few seconds, there’s gonna be more soldiers pouring in here. They’ll be right on top of us.”

“You guys go.” That was Roxa, and she was looking at Tristan, Vanessa, and me. “You go through the tunnel with those crystals, while we hold off the soldiers. We’ll keep them from hitting you from behind.”

Sands nodded. “Like Haiden said, all that matters is getting someone to where Sariel is to call in the big guns. Go, we’ve got this. We’ll see if we can get more of those crystals off these guys and follow you as soon as we can. Be careful, and go save Sariel.”

I wanted to argue with that. I wanted to stay and help them fight these guys.  But the truth was that there just wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Kushiel to find a way to move her prisoners despite the portal blockers that had come in with the fleet. And if we lost this chance, I didn’t know how we’d ever get another one.

So, we went. Now down to Tristan, Vanessa, and myself, the three of us took off toward the tunnel. Each of us held one of those crystals that the rescued soldier had given us. In the background, I heard more fighting start up as the pursuing guards made it into that chamber. Silently, I wished Jazz, Gordon, Roxa, Gidget, and Sands luck. But I didn’t dare look back. If I had, I might not have been able to convince myself to keep going.

Together, the three of us reached the large doorway leading to the ramp, which descended down into the tunnel that would lead to the lab. For a second, we glanced at each other. Vanessa spoke in a slightly trembling voice as she held her crystal in one hand. “Let’s go save Mom.”

My head gave a little nod, Tabbris taking my voice briefly to quietly say, “Save Mama.”

With that, we sprinted together down that ramp and into the tunnel. The crystals in our hands glowed a bit, but at least we didn’t disintegrate. Which was a good thing. The tunnel itself was wide enough for a couple of trucks to drive through, and pretty much completely barren. Our footsteps echoed as we raced along it.

After a minute or so of running like that, Vanessa abruptly caught my arm to yank me out of the way a second before a barrage of shots sailed through the air where I had just been. She’d clearly seen the attack coming with her enhanced vision. “Soldiers,” the girl gasped out while pointing down the long tunnel, far beyond where I could see. “There’s a big cluster of them right by the exit.”

Tristan was grinning. “A big cluster, you say?” He lifted his arm with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form. “Great, let’s see if we can break it up a bit, shall we?”

There was a rapidly rising hum of power, and then the boy shot an enormous laser from his snake-cannon. The beam was a solid two feet across as it tore down that straight tunnel, and Tristan move his arm a bit from side to side and up-and-down to cover as much of the tunnel as possible. After a couple of seconds, he suddenly gave a sharp gasp and shuddered with pleasure as I saw his bronze-colored aura flare up. He’d gotten at least one kill from that. Meanwhile, the beam fizzled and he finally dropped his arm. “That’s it, gotta let her recharge.”

Vanessa was already running again, as she announced, “You killed two of them. The rest hit the ground.”

A few more steps bought us close enough that Tristan and I could see what she meant. There was a pile of soldiers who were just starting to pick themselves up from the floor. But I had been charging my staff this entire time, and I was ready. With another step, I shifted my weapon into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow with all the power that I had stored up. A second later, I loosed the arrow and it soared in to explode right in the middle of the collected soldiers. They were all sent flying into opposite walls, one even hitting the ceiling before crashing back to the ground.

We were there then, the three of us sprinting straight through the crumpled pile of guards before they could collect themselves. Ignoring them entirely, we just kept going. There wasn’t time to stop and handle them. Every second counted, especially now. If we didn’t have to waste time fighting, we weren’t going to.

That put us into what looked like a loading bay of some kind. All around us were these clear tubes of all different shapes and sizes. They were clearly meant to house living beings, with displays on the side to show their vitals and things like that. Some of them were tipped on their side, while others were upright. None of them had anyone in them, which I supposed meant that they were used for transporting.

Or maybe these ones were in maintenance or something, I wasn’t sure. The point was, there was a door ahead of us that lead into what looked like a futuristic hospital. Everything through there seemed pristine and sterile from what little I could see.

“The lab,” Vanessa gasped out with wide eyes. “We’re here. We made it.”

“We might be at the lab,” Tristan corrected flatly, “but we haven’t gotten to Mom yet. Come on. We’re so close. We can’t trip now.”

There were still soldiers in the lab itself, of course. They weren’t going to make it that easy for us, even then. But those soldiers were spread out, trying to cover a large space with too few of them, as most were busy helping Radueriel and Abbadon, or fighting Haiden and Larissa, or even trying to deal with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz. We may have been gradually spread out throughout this effort, but so had Kushiel’s forces. She only had so many left in the lab itself, and the most dangerous ones were thoroughly occupied.

So, we fought our way through, killing several more of the guards on the way to find Sariel. Nothing was going to stand in our way at that point, after everything we’d gone through to get that far. Especially not these soldiers. Through empty room after empty room, hallway after hallway, we kept fighting. The place, aside from the guard trying to stop us, was practically a ghost town. But it was also clear that the prisoners had been moved in a big hurry. We still had time to get wherever they were being taken, I hoped.

Eventually, our paths led us to what at first looked like an observation room, with a large window all along one wall. But as we went closer, I saw that there wasn’t any kind of operating room or anything below. Instead, the window overlooked a docking bay built into the side of the lab. Below, we could see more of those tubes. These ones, however, had figures in them. Prisoners. And there were soldiers working to load them onto some kind of… I was guessing that it was a spaceship, but it looked more like a long tube with a ramp leading up into it. I couldn’t see where any thrusters or weapons or anything were. Standing right at the base of that ramp, directing them, was a tall, regal-looking woman with dark hair tied into a single, tight braid. The very sight of her made my skin crawl, as a cold lump settled into my stomach. Kushiel. That had to be Kushiel.

But it wasn’t her that the others were focused on. Tabbris suddenly made my eyes snap down a bit, at the tube that sat beside the woman. A tube with a pretty blonde figure frozen within.

“Mama!” my mouth abruptly blurted, even as Tristan and Vanessa made their own sounds to the same effect.  

“We have to get down there,” Tristan blurted then, looking back to me wildly. “We have to get down there before—“

He stopped, as Kushiel looked up right at us through the window. I saw a small, cold smile cross the woman’s face before she said something to the soldier near her. That guy moved to grab the tube holding Sariel, pushing it up the ramp to the ship.

Bellowing out, Tristan suddenly took aim at the window with his cannon and opened fire. Unfortunately, the laser didn’t so much as scorch what turned out to be a force field rather than glass. It just sort of fizzled.  Breaking through it like that was going to take a lot more time than we actually had. That ship would be gone soon, along with any hope of saving Sariel.

Vanessa and I both had our badges in our hands, activating them as fast as we could. The other girl looked to me, her eyes wide. “What if they don’t get here in time? They’re in the middle of a fight. They might not be able to get away.”

She was right, every second counted. Looking around wildly, I pointed to a small door to one side. “There,” I blurted, already moving that way. Sure enough, as we tore the door open, we found a set of stairs leading downward. The stairs took us to a small, empty corridor, at the end of which there was a door that clearly lead into the hangar bay that we had just been looking at.

As we sprinted that way, however, a blue light suddenly sprang to life and passed over us. I felt a tingle, and then heard a gasp as Tabbris stumbled out of me. My hand snapped out to catch the other girl before she could fall. “What the—?”

“Safety measure,” Vanessa instantly deduced. “They must use it to make sure there aren’t any Seosten prisoners hitching a ride to get out of here.”

Flinching a little, I nodded. “Right, come on and—”

“Now this,” a new, yet vaguely familiar voice suddenly interrupted, “is quite interesting.”

A woman was there, blocking our path to the door. She stepped forward, and I recognized her. It made no sense to me for a second, but it was definitely her, one of the members of the Crossroads Committee. Elisabet. Elisabet was there, staring at Tabbris, then at me while realization and full comprehension dawned across her expression at a speed that was matched only by the horrified sinking feeling that had fallen into my own stomach like a crater.

“Quite interesting indeed.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-05

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Flames, metal, lasers, and more suddenly filled the air with the fury and force of a hurricane as the Seosten forces opened fire without any further preamble. In the same instant, a glowing forcefield dome appeared directly around all of us as Larissa held both hands out to her sides. Her face contorted a little from the effort as more shots rebounded off of the shield, and she shook her head. “Can’t hold it for long,” she announced with a grunt of effort.

Even as she said that, Haiden reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. I saw the forcefield grow stronger and stop flickering quite as much as he somehow helped take some of the strain off of her. It still wouldn’t last for long under all this firepower, but between the two of them, at least it wouldn’t immediately collapse.

“Category three,” Athena immediately announced while drawing Excalibur from its sheath once more. The incredible dragon-tooth sword seemed to hum with power as she held it in front of her.

We had come in here with several different plans of what to do as things progressed. Category one, of course, was that we could go straight to the cells, free Sariel and the others, and leave. Athena had considered that the least likely possibility, and I had to agree with her.

On the other hand, category three was the idea that there would be some large enough threat that Athena and Apollo would have to split off from us to slow down or stop, while the rest of us pushed onward without our most powerful escorts. At least at first. We were each carrying something similar to the communication badges. In this case, however, the badges were specifically set to allow Apollo and Athena to teleport straight to us the moment we found the cells, or Sariel in particular, in the case that we were separated.

Haiden was already nodding as he reached into his pocket to withdraw what looked like a small, circular metal band. At the same time, I saw a brief second of deeper concentration passed over Larissa’s face, and the partially translucent forcefield around us turned completely opaque, stopping the people outside from seeing what we were doing. More than that, the forcefield wouldn’t let any powers see or hear through it either. We were, at least for those few seconds, completely cut off from them. They would have no idea what was going on in here.

I could still hear the shots pouring into it, however. And the field itself was still occasionally flickering under the strain. We had to make this quick.

“Wait,” Tristan quickly protested. “You mean you want us to just abandon you guys here with all of these assholes?”

Apollo gave him a quick look. “Kid,” he announced, “you need to save your mom, got it? You forget these guys. We’ll deal with them. You get to your mom so we can get her out of whatever torture chamber she’s been strapped into. She’s been waiting long enough. You do your part, we’ll do ours.”

“Be careful,” Vanessa urged. She put a hand up against her uncle’s arm. Her expression was pensive, and I thought about how awful it must’ve been for her to see her family ripped away from her as a child. While not remotely the same now, this whole situation had to be bringing back those memories. Memories that, in her case, were absolutely crystal clear and perfect.

Apollo winked at her and gave the girl a thumbs up, just as Haiden threw the metal band to the ground. Instantly, a glowing portal erupted out of it.

This was another one of Dries’ tricks, essentially a quick escape spell. The other end of the portal would seek out the nearest area that was at least a few hundred yards away, and didn’t seem to have any immediate threat within it. Basically, it would jump the person out of an immediate conflict. Like, for example, this one.

Part of me wanted to tell Apollo and Athena they should just go through the escape portal with us, but I knew why they weren’t. They had to stay behind and distract these guys. We had been expecting for them to have to deal with Kushiel. Now… well, I just hoped that they wouldn’t be too busy back here with Abbadon and Radueriel when that particular threat showed her face.

Haiden went through the escape portal first, weapon raised in its gun form. An instant later, he was followed by Roxa and Gidget, then Jazz and Gordon together, with Sands heading right after. The twins jumped through then, with one last look back at Apollo.

Go for it, I urged my partner, knowing what she really wanted to do.

My feet moved without my control, as Tabbris moved us over to the blond man. My hands went up to clutch his arm, and my voice pleaded, “Be careful, Uncle Apollo. Mama wants to see you too.”

Apollo‘s broad smile grew even wider at that, and he reached out to ruffle my hair. “You keep each other safe,” the man urged. “All of you. Now go find your mom. We’ll meet you there.”

Back under my own control then, I moved to the portal quickly. Larissa was there waiting for me, and the two of us went through pretty much simultaneously. I could hear the forcefield fall as we passed through, and the sound of fighting suddenly erupted just before the portal closed behind us. Apollo and Athena were on their own. Silently, I wished them luck.

And us. I wished us luck too.

The others were all waiting for us. Looking around, I saw that we had emerged into some kind of military cafeteria. Or at least it had been before the place had been destroyed by the crash. The tables, once drab and uniform with simple benches, had all been broken and tossed around, their remains scattered around the room. Against one wall was a window where the crew of the ship had gotten their food from the kitchen that I could see beyond. In that kitchen, I could see the remains of several fires, and destruction that made it look like a tornado had hit the place.

There were three sets of doors in the room. One clearly led back into that same kitchen that was visible through the window, while the others led out into the rest of the facility. I could see a single body on the floor of the kitchen entrance, with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing over it. Meanwhile, Haiden stood by one of the other entrances, with Vanessa and Tristan standing by the other. Jazz and Gordon were in the middle of the room.

“Time to go,” Haiden announced as soon as Larissa and I appeared together. He peeked out into the corridor beyond the doors before beckoning. “Hurry, we are not going to give them time to move her.”

As we moved to the doorway, Jazz glanced to me. “Looks like you made even more enemies than we thought. Those guys back there looked pretty pissed at you.”

Grimacing a little at that, I nodded. “Who knew that Charmeine actually had friends?”

“Well so do you,” Sands pointed out. Her fist bumped my shoulder. “And we’re not gonna let anything happen to you, no matter how many of those assholes come looking.”

Together, we all moved into the hallway. It hadn’t fared much better in the crash. I could see places where the metal walls were bent and broken, big jagged holes revealing other parts of the ship, or just the wiring and pipes. Everything was a mess.

To our left there was a flame-scorched wall, through which we could hear the distant sound of fighting. Apollo and Athena were busy. Meanwhile, the hallway stretched on to the right, gradually curving, with several doors and other corridors leading off in various directions.

Haiden picked up the pace, jogging quickly. “The way the ship came down,” he announced, “the best exit to put us in the tower is this way.”

So we followed him. Larissa brought up the rear, while the rest of us teenagers jogged along behind the man as he lead us through the maze of the broken ship’s interior.

We were ready for a fight, but no one stopped us at first. There was no one to stop us. Everyone on the ship had either been teleported off, or had been brought on with Ares and Radueriel and were busy dealing with Athena and Apollo. Our path, for the moment, was clear.

Was being the operative term. Because just as we emerged into a larger chamber that I belatedly recognized as some kind of shuttle bay with wide open doors leading outside, that stopped being the case. Ahead of us, coming through those same enormous shuttlebay doors that would take us out of the ship, were a couple dozen soldiers of various species. They were accompanied by several enormous mechanized things that look like twelve-foot tall metal rhinos with a bunch of weapons attached to them. Tanks, or at least one of the Seosten versions.

As if that wasn’t enough, noise behind us drew our attention back to where several more of the Seosten, likely the ones who had the biggest problem with me, had apparently abandoned the fight with Athena and Apollo and had caught up with us. Once again, we were surrounded. And this time, we were actually going to have to fight our way through them to get out of the ship and into the lab.

There was no time to discuss things, no time to make another plan or have any kind of conversation. These guys weren’t in the mood to negotiate or even make any wisecracks. The soldiers on both sides saw us, and instantly attacked.

Chaos ensued, complete and utter chaos. Shots, fire, and more filled the air, even as those big rhino-tank things began to pound their way forward, the cannons on their backs and sides opening up.

Without hesitation, Haiden went forward, intercepting the tanks as well as all the soldiers who were on that side. He was a whirling dervish with his long weapon that kept rapidly switching between its sword-form and the shotgun. A shotgun which, apparently, was powerful enough to stagger one of those tanks when he shot it point-blank.

Vanessa and Tristan moved to help their dad, backing him up while he did the bulk of the work. The twins were right there, able to fight alongside their father for the first real time. It was almost beautiful to watch, and I wished for a second that I could afford to pay more attention to it.

I did, however, get to see Vanessa snap her whip out, catching it around the leg of one of the men before yanking him up and forward into the air just as a blast from Tristan’s arm-cannon tore through him like the two of them were skeet shooting.

Larissa, meanwhile, disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear between us and the small group of Seosten who had apparently been coming after me specifically. The handful of shots that had been on target were intercepted in mid-air, held motionless before being tossed aside. At the same time, a large burst of fire that had been coming from one man’s outstretched hand was frozen solid before shattering into a dozen pieces.

She went to work then, throwing herself at that group and taking the attention of most of them. Which was a pretty good thing, since if these guys were even remotely close to the level that Charmeine had been on, I seriously doubted that even Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Tabbris, and I could take them all on together. Six of them and six of us? Five if you counted Tabbris and me as one. I had a pretty bad feeling that we would have been slaughtered.

As it was, two of them broke free and kept going for their main target: me. Which left Larissa fighting four of them, a serious enough threat that the woman actually produced the weapon that she and Athena had been working on.

Essentially, Larissa’s new weapon was a hunk of very clear crystal. Or at least, something that looked like crystal. The thing seemed like it would shatter if you stared at it too hard. But it was apparently strong enough to withstand almost anything. And more than that, the thing could change shape. It basically had some kind of unconscious mental connection to the wielder. At a thought, it would reshape from a sword, to a spear, to a shield, and so on.

Plus, any kind of energy that hit it, like fire, electricity, sound, several kinds of magic, or even simple kinetic force (often by smacking the thing against the wall a few times), were absorbed and contained. The thing could contain those energies pretty much indefinitely. Then, at any time, they could be fired back out of it, often by making the thing take the shape of a gun.

The point was, the weapon was still very new, and they hadn’t worked out everything about it yet. So, seeing her draw it now showed just how serious the situation was. And it meant that even facing two of these guys was going to be a pretty big problem for the six of us.

Even as the two Seosten came at me, with their weapons drawn, Roxa and the others withdrew. I found myself standing there alone while they dropped back. But the thought that they had abandoned me never entered my head. I knew what they were doing: pulling back so that the two Seosten would come straight at me and could be attacked from the side or behind. They were leaving me standing there as bait. And quite frankly, I completely understood that. We needed every advantage we could get in this fight, and using their own rage about the loss of their friend (the thought of which was still a little weird) against them was an advantage.

I just had to survive the initial assault.

Tab, I thought then with that in mind, get ready to boost. Yes, she could only do so for a brief time, but she was getting better at it constantly. And now felt like the best time to actually use it. I had to survive the next few seconds so that the others could help.

The two Seosten were in sync. Just before they would have reached me, one dropped to a knee, producing a pistol of some kind. He fired at me rapidly, filling the air with shots. Meanwhile, his partner leapt, producing another one of those laser-blades in one hand, which he swung down at my head while spinning in the air as he passed over me. They were basically trying to force me to choose between diving into the incoming shots, or jumping into the blade. Even I wasn’t fast enough to deal with all of this at once.

Or at least, I wasn’t before. But in that instant, Tabbris hit the boost, and everything seemed to slow down dramatically. It was like one of those video games where you can hit a button and make everything go into slow-motion, while you move fairly normally. I was suddenly stronger, faster, and everything else seemed like it was moving through some kind of very thick liquid.

I used it. Raising my hands quickly, I set two small portals right in the path of a few of the incoming shots. At the same time, I could feel that laser sword inching closer and closer to my exposed neck as the other Seosten’s leaping spin carried him over my head. But with everything appearing to move as slowly as it did, I was able to turn my head and shoulders just enough that the energy blade passed right near me, even as those bullets were intercepted by the portals.

With a grimace, I stabbed the bladed end of my staff upward, straight at the man who was passing over my head. He was right there, exposed above me in mid-leap. I could end at least his part of this.

Or at least, I could have. But in that same instance, the Seosten was suddenly moving as fast as I was. His slowed motion turned normal as he snapped his hand down to catch hold of my weapon just before it could have pierced his chest, stopping it. Then he landed, still holding my staff as his strength nearly tore it from my grasp.

In the background, I also saw the other guy neatly and smoothly avoid the shots that I had sent back through those portals at him, moving like they were going in slow motion.

Right, great, these guys could boost too. And they were clearly doing so. The first man tried again to yank my stuff out of my hands, and he would have managed it if I hadn’t been boosting as well. My foot lashed out to kick at him, but the man easily twisted aside before stepping in to backhand me. I took the blow on the side of my head, seeing stars as I staggered. In the background, I could feel the other guy running closer with some kind of blade of his own.

Worse, even as I managed to yank my staff back away from the grip of the man holding it, I felt the last of the boost give way. I was back to normal, or at least, what was normal to me. In the background of my mind I could feel Tabbris’s exhaustion from the effort of making me as fast and strong as possible for as long as she could. She had been getting so much better, but she was still a kid, and could only make it happen for a few seconds at a time. Still, she had absolutely saved my life in that moment. Throw it onto the pile of all the other times she had saved me.

But now she was exhausted, and I was standing there with two murderous Seosten coming at me from either side.

But like Sands had said, I had friends too. And they suddenly made themselves known. Behind me, as my head turned slightly at a sound, I caught a glimpse of the guys there being ambushed by Jazz and Gordon. His weapons were yanked away from him by a focused gravity ball, just before one of Gordon’s new light blue concussive energy blasts struck the Seosten himself. It didn’t do that much, barely staggering the man. But I knew that each consecutive hit would do more damage. Plus, every time he hit the guy, Gordon would be better able to predict his actions.

Gidget was there too, backing the other two up by pinning the guy down with a rapid series of shots from her hoverboard/weapons platform mode, before she switched back to her normal cougar/form and lunged at him.

Meanwhile, a shadow slid across the floor between me and the other Seosten, before Sands popped up, reforming with her hands raised.

“Hey,” she blurted, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?!”

The man obliged, rearing back with his foot to kick at her with blinding speed, and enough force to have put a hole in a brick wall. But, as strong as he might have been, Sands was standing still, which meant that her invulnerability and immobility power had kicked in. The man’s foot landed right in the middle of the girl’s chest, and I heard a couple snaps as bones in his foot and ankle snapped from the force of it. Meanwhile, Sands herself stood completely motionless and unbothered.

As he recoiled with a grunt of pain, favoring that foot, I saw Roxa. The blonde girl was coming up from behind the man with her claws extended. He had no idea that she was there, since her own power rendered her completely undetectable by anything other than direct line of sight.

He did, however, know that Sands was there. And he was pretty ticked off at her. With a growl, the man snapped that laser sword out. And while she may have been pretty much invulnerable to physical impact while standing still, I wasn’t sure that extended to something like that laser sword.

Sands apparently felt the same way, because she suddenly moved with blinding speed of her own, boosting with the power she had taken from the Seosten that she had killed. Pivoting away from the incoming blade, she caught hold of the man’s extended arm with a grip that I knew was stronger than mine even at normal times, let alone now that she was boosting.

Unfortunately, holding the Seosten like that was apparently the wrong move. Because the moment that she did, his entire arm transformed into what looked like a literal tree branch, an instant before two smaller branches stabbed out of the side of that branch, piercing straight through Sands’ hands. The blood-covered, pointed ends immediately widened too much for Sands to yank free, even as the girl cried out. She had been moving, so she wasn’t invulnerable.

Worse, a larger branch, also pointed at the end, grew from the bottom of that arm-branch before stabbing upward toward the other girl’s chest.

But I was there. Or rather, Tabbris was. My partner had apparently recovered from her exhaustion enough to kick in the boost once more, and I was suddenly a blur of motion as my staff snapped out to cut that spear-like wooden ‘branch’ with the bladed end an instant before it would have stabbed through Sands. A second later, she managed to rip her injured hands free with a violently blurted curse.

Taking back control then, I snapped the bladed end of my staff up at the man’s face. I whiffed entirely of course, the man too fast for a blow like that. His head jerked back instantly away from the blade, while a cocky smile grew across his face.

It was a smile that vanished an instant later, as Roxa got to him. My deliberate swing had put the man right in her path. With his head back like that, his neck was exposed. And Roxa grabbed onto that exposed neck with both of her hands. I saw her claws dig deep into the meat of his throat, tearing into his jugular and spraying blood everywhere. I could literally see the inside of the man’s throat as it was torn open like… like a banana having the peel torn off of it. A very bloody banana.

At the same time, Roxa opened her mouth to reveal enormous fangs as she bit into the back of his neck to do even more horrific damage. Her mouth tore through the man’s spinal cord in his neck, the bones shattering under her teeth while she used the claws buried into his torn open throat to push it back further into her mouth. A vicious, animal-like snarl rose from the girl, while her teeth tightened enough to finish completely breaking through the Seosten’s spine. Between her teeth buried in the back of the man’s neck and her claws embedded in the front of it, Roxa tore his head completely off.

The man died like that, and Roxa’s glowing aura popped up as she staggered with a sudden gasp of pleasure. Blood, bits of bone, and flesh coated her mouth and face, falling from her open mouth as she coughed and gave a little shudder.

A second later, I heard a scream of rage, and then a cry of pain. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the other Seosten shove Jazz to the floor with a clearly broken arm. His eyes, full of rage and fury, were on Roxa and me.

He took a step our way, but Gordon was suddenly there, catching hold of the Seosten’s arm tightly. For his part, the enraged man blinked down, then snarled, “No possession defense?” His other hand snapped out to catch hold of Gordon before the boy could pull back. “That was a mistake.”

Wait, why wouldn’t Gordon have the possession defense o– My thoughts disappeared an instant later, along with the shouted warning that had been materializing on my lips. Because the Seosten briefly disappeared as he began to possess the boy… only to almost immediately reappear. But he reappeared wrong. Totally and completely wrong. I could see organs where there was supposed to be skin. His head was down near where his foot should have been, while teeth and shattered bones were scattered over his entire body, haphazardly sticking out of various bits of flesh. His pulsing heart was where his head had been, with one eye stuck in the middle of it, while his other eye was down around the middle of the body. One of his lungs was up atop a lump of flesh shaped into a hump on his back.

It got worse everywhere I looked. What had been a Seosten man was now just a disjointed monster with bits stuck here and there, his entire body turned inside out and swapped around randomly. And the worst part was, he was still alive, at least for a few seconds. I could see the mouth near the bottom of his contorted right leg open and clearly screaming silently for a few seconds before the entire miserable figure completely collapsed and lay still.

As Gordon’s forest-green aura glowed brightly, the rest of us stared at him open-mouthed in complete silence and shock for a moment. The realization of what had just happened, and why the boy had always refused to allow me to possess him, sank in then.

“You… you…” That was Sands, her eyes wide. “Dude. You’re… why didn’t you tell us you were a… a…”

“A hybrid?” the boy’s voice was flat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… want you to treat me any differently. I didn’t want to add to everything else going on, everything else you’re dealing with. I didn’t want to be another project.”

Before I could say anything to that, Haiden was suddenly there, along with the twins. They (mostly Haiden) had destroyed both of those tanks, and taken out several of the soldiers. But there are more (both soldiers and tanks) coming through several of the other open shuttlebay doors and making their way to us.

“We’ll talk about that later,” the man announced while helping Jazz to her feet. “Right now, there’s too many of these guys to deal with,” he announced. “They’re slowing us down too much. You need to get out of here. We’ll slow them down. You find the lab. Get into it anyway you can. When you get to the lab, use those badges that Athena gave you. Use those, and we’ll be able to teleport right to you.”

“But Dad,” Tristan started. Before he could continue however, Haiden caught his son and yanked him out of the way of an incoming shot from one of the newly arrived tank things. The shot obliterated part of the far wall, where I caught a glimpse of Larissa fighting the other Seosten.

“Go!” Haiden ordered. “Find your mother. I have to help Larissa, and you need to get out of here. Now go.” He punctuated that with a little push, nodding to both of his children. “Find your mom,” he repeated tersely. “You can do it, just get to her and summon the rest of us.”

The rest of us looked at one another for a brief second. I could see the fear and hesitation in Sands’ eyes. She wanted to stay and help her mother as much as the twins wanted to stay and help their father. And I could also see hesitation in Gordon’s eyes. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he was afraid that we would treat him differently now that we knew the truth. And honestly, even though I had no plans to treat him differently, of course, I did want answers. I wanted to know how long he had known that he was a hybrid. I wanted to know who his parents were. I wanted…. I wanted to know a lot. 

But we also knew that Haiden was right. There wasn’t time for any of that. We had to get to Sariel. So, as one, we turned and ran past the remains of the tanks and soldiers, on our way through the open doors.

One of those rhino-tanks appeared in our path, blocking the way out. As its weapons began to come to life, I started to dive out of the way.

But there was no need. Without breaking stride, Vanessa lunged that way. In mid-leap, the girl transformed. Her body grew, expanding into a massive, fur-covered figure. The werebear. She was in her werebear form. With a pants-wetting roar, the normally quiet and studious girl smacked the tank out of the way, sending it tumbling end over end like a normal person hitting a crumpled up piece of paper. Then she just kept going like that, running on all fours without even glancing back.

With that, we were through the doors. And for the moment, we had left the last of our adult escorts behind. 

Leaving the ship and entering the tower that would lead us to Kushiel’s lab, we were officially… on our own.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-04

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I don’t think she’s very happy with the plan.

Tabbris’s observation in the back of my head over the ongoing ranting from the Seosten woman made me smile just a little bit. I knew that my, or rather, our current host couldn’t hear her unless the other girl would have wanted her to. Yeah, I replied, I’m kind of getting that impression too.

“They’re coming.” The announcement came from Larissa, who was standing near the door that we had come through. She turned to me then, asking, “Are you ready for this? You know what to do.”

Giving the body I was inhabiting a once-over, I checked the wound in her side. For a moment, I wondered why I hadn’t really felt any of her pain, before realizing that Tabbris had probably turned that off the second we jumped inside the woman. It wasn’t exactly shallow, but also clearly wasn’t life threatening. We’d be okay for the time being. If nothing else, it would make the next part look realistic.  

So, I gave Larissa a quick nod, adding a thumbs up. “Yup, all set.”

“Be careful, kid,” Apollo advised. “We’ll be right here, but… just be careful. Watch yourself.”

I knew what he was really saying. He was telling Tabbris and me to watch over each other, without acknowledging her existence in any way that would let anyone else know. So I gave him a thumbs up, while Tabbris used the other hand to give him another one. Two thumbs up. It was one of our signals that we’d worked out.

That was all we had time for. Larissa gave another look our way, before holding out a hand. I felt a bit of pressure against the Seosten woman’s body as Larissa lifted us up with some kind of telekinesis. A second later, we were suddenly sent flying through the air, out the open doorway, and down the corridor. I caught a brief glimpse of a lot of armed figures as we sailed a solid twenty feet before crashing to the ground, rolling end over end until we came to a dazed stop. Larissa really hadn’t held much, if anything, back on that one.

“Lailah!” a voice shouted from nearby, and I blinked that way in time to see an achingly gorgeous guy with curled brown hair and the most adorable dimp- focus, Flick. The obvious Seosten man was standing there with a rifle in one hand, surrounded by more soldiers. A lot of soldiers. There were a few Seosten mixed in there, but most of them were other races. All of them were heavily armed, and they did not look happy.

Ishtien, Tabbris instantly supplied. She was quicker at looking through our host’s memories than I would have been, so there was no real delay between when I saw the man and when the name filled my head.

“Ishtien,” I made the woman’s mouth say while quickly pushing her up to her feet. “We’re under attack. They’re trying to crash the ship into the facility. We have to stop them.” It was tempting to shout or act panicked to sell it, but I had to remember that the woman I was possessing was a professional. She was a soldier who had been trusted to be the last line of defense within the reactor room, and someone like that wouldn’t just panic. So I kept her voice terse and clearly right on the edge of screaming, but still in control. It helped that being surrounded by all these guns put me pretty much in the same mindset that I was trying to portray.

“We noticed.” Ishtien’s voice was dry, right on the edge of humor as he gave us a brief look. “Who’s in there? How did they get access to the system? You were…” He paused then, and I could tell that the man was right on the edge of suspicion. I had to head that off at the pass. Luckily, I knew exactly what kind of answer to give him to do just that.

My mouth opened to say, ‘Apollo’, but instead, the word that came out was, “Lucifer!”

Sorry! Tabbris’s voice quickly put in. She would have said Lucifer, not Apollo.

She was right, of course. The real Lailah would’ve referred to him by his Seosten name, not the one he had taken on Earth. Quickly reminding her not to apologize for helping, I repeated aloud, “Lucifer. They have Lucifer. His power, he… he used it to make me–” Wincing with a show of what I hoped looked like shame, I made the woman’s hands touch the wound in her side.

Ishtien had filled in the blank by that point. Which was what I was going for. His mouth twisted a little. “He and Auriel together?”

I made Lailah nod. “She cut off our–” Tabbris quickly supplied the right word for the mind-meld. “–breven to stop me from warning you.” Reaching up, I grabbed his arm. “They mean to crash the ship into the facility and use it to destroy the security tower. We must stop them, now!”

Grimacing, the Seosten man barked an order at the soldiers surrounding him. “You heard her! Get in the room. Kill them all, go now! Get them away from the controls!”

They hopped to, rushing for the doors. As Ishtien turned his own attention that way, he put his back to me. As soon as he did that, my (or rather, Lailah’s) eyes narrowed, and I made her reach for the knife attached to her belt while focusing on the back of his neck.

Wait! The Seosten woman, who had been ranting angrily in the back of my mind, suddenly blurted. Her anger had vanished, turning into abrupt desperation, with palpable fear. Wait, please! Please, Ishtien is my friend. We grew up together. He is the only person I have left from my childhood. I–I won’t fight you. I won’t fight you. I will even allow you to kill me or imprison me. I will do anything you wish.  But please, please do not… do not kill him. There is a stun feature on the handle of the blade that will knock him out. I am begging you, human. Please do not kill my friend.

I could feel her terror, her certainty that I wouldn’t listen to her right alongside her total and complete desperation. If we had been face to face, I knew that I would have been able to see the tears in her eyes. She had been trying to seize control ever since I had possessed her. But with the knife already pulled and my focus on Ishtien’s neck, she had given up, choosing to play the last card she had left: begging. For a half second, I wondered how many of her hosts had begged her to stop whatever she was doing. And whether or not she had ever listened to them.

Lifting the woman’s hand, I flipped the button on the side of the knife, triggering the stun-prod on the hilt before smacking it into the back of the Seosten man’s neck. A jolt of purple electricity crackled across his skin, before the man collapsed to the ground with a cry that was abruptly cut off as he fell into a completely unconscious heap.

Ignoring the rush of gratitude from my host, I focused on the group of soldiers ahead of me. They hadn’t noticed their leader collapse to the floor quite yet. Mostly because they were all a bit busy, running headlong into Apollo and Larissa in their desperate attempt to get through the doorway and into that room so they could stop the ship from crashing. I could see glimpses of Larissa’s forcefield keeping them out, as well as bursts of flame from some unknown source.

It’s been a real blast, I informed Lailah, but this is where I get off. As she started to respond, I ignored her, stepping out of the body while metaphorically hitting the button that would leave her unconscious. As her body fell, I produced my staff before taking one more look at the backs of the assembled soldiers. There was a mix of younger Seosten and other Alters, of them so intent on getting into the room ahead of them that they had yet to actually notice me.

Time to change that. Gripping my staff, I took a running start, heading straight for the rear of the group. A tall (nine feet in height) musclebound figure with rock-like skin was there, taking aim with a rifle that looked like a miniature ship-mounted cannon. Larissa’s forcefield was good, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough to stand up to something like that for very long. So, he was definitely my first target.

“Hey, asshole!” I shouted over the sound of the battle. At my voice, the big guy abruptly spun back, surprise written over his gruff-looking face at the sight of both me and the two unconscious Seosten as his mouth opened to bellow a quick warning.

In that instant, I brought my staff up, triggering the charge it had been building up. At the same time, I thrust that end of the staff backward, straight into the tiny portal that I had just opened. The other end of that portal appeared directly behind the big guy’s head, and his cry of warning turned to one of pain as the blast from the newly-emerged staff struck him right there.

The force of the blow knocked the big guy’s head forward and down, even as it also launched me forward and up. I shut off the portal then, letting the full force of it propel me that way. Before the guy could recover from the blow to the back of his head, the bladed end of my staff was driven into his throat. Blood sprayed everywhere, even as my feet collided with his chest. An instant later, I kicked back away from his steadily collapsing body while yanking my staff out.

As I flipped backward, away from the falling figure, I felt the rush of pleasure from his death. But it was muted a bit, like I wasn’t really feeling the full effect of it, just enough to know it was there.

Did you do that? I quickly asked my partner while landing in a crouch with my staff in one hand.

Um. Y-yes? The response came a bit hesitantly. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but I thought it would help if you weren’t so distracted. So I um, I tried.

Grinning, I gave a slight inward nod. Keep it up, partner.

That was all I had time to say. Because as distracted as they might have been before, the rest of the small army that had assembled to attack the reactor room definitely knew I was there now. Half of them had come up short, spinning back to see the big guy collapse to the floor. I saw realization cross some of their faces, as they looked from the fallen Seosten, then to me and back again. They knew. They understood that they had been tricked. Their leaders were down, and now they were caught in the middle of the corridor between me and the other two, who had stopped playing so defensively now that the trap had been sprung. Larissa had been using little more than the forcefield to make them stay focused on her. But now that they knew I was behind them, she and Apollo were actually fighting back.

Larissa had wanted to be the one who did this part, the one who dealt with whoever the leader of the group that was sent down to deal with us was, because she wanted to be the one who was behind the Seosten while I stayed safe next to Apollo. But thanks to both Charmeine’s death and Tabbris’s expertise in using it, my possession-ability was stronger than hers. Which meant that Tabbris and I had been far more likely to able to keep control of whatever Seosten we ended up finding in that reactor room. So us doing it had just made sense. Which meant that me being the the one who ended up on the opposite side of whatever group showed up to stop us was pretty inevitable.

But it also meant that we were by ourselves, cut off from the other three and with a small army between us. At least… for the moment. There was a plan to change that much too, eventually.

A shout went up among the group, a warning cry. Then they broke apart. Some came for me, trying to deal with the threat that I presented to their rear, while the rest pushed on for the reactor, running headlong into the solid brick wall that was Larissa and Apollo.

As for me? Well, if these guys wanted to fight me so badly, I would absolutely oblige them.

Three of the soldiers stopped, their weapons coming up to take aim at me. One of the things that had been drilled into me over and over again throughout the month that I had spent at the Aelaestiam base was the ability to recognize what kind of weapons were being used at first glance. Athena had made me go through test after test, identifying the weapon and its capability with and without Tabbris’s help. And thanks to that, I immediately knew that two of the soldiers were using energy weapons, while the other held a slugthrower.

I had actually asked Athena once why the Seosten used a mixture of lasers and bullet weapons instead of focusing on the former, which would seem to be the more advanced and useful type. In response, she had explained that it was easier to put spells for various effects on bullets than it was to put them on lasers. Also, the Fomorian proclivity for making themselves and their creations immune to everything under the sun meant that it was a good idea to have a wide variety of options. It was the same reason that Heretics were so useful, really: variety and surprise was the key to beating the Fomorians. Having things that they hadn’t anticipated, and Heretics were really hard to anticipate.

As the soldiers took aim and fired, I kept right on going. I was ready for the lasers, absorbing their energy with a thought. Meanwhile, the bullet came right at my chest. Fortunately for me, Tabbris was on the job. One of the many little bits of cloth that the two of us had painstakingly spent hours enchanting instantly appeared right on my shirt. The so-called kevlar spell caught the metal slug’s momentum and slowed it down to almost nothing before it bounced off my chest as I kept running forward.

Two more steps, and I reached the nearest enemies, a guy with some kind of long metal pike and another with what amounted to a lightsaber.

That guy with the pike had reach on me, so I went for him first, baiting him into stabbing the thing right at me before quickly pivoting out of the way.

The strike came so close to hitting me as it passed that I could literally feel the blade and handle skim right through my shirt. Rather than doing the sensible thing and moving further away from it however, I let myself sink back just a little so that the handle actually did touch me just a bit. At the same time I curled my fingers a little.

Once more, my partner was right on top of things. We had gotten good enough through all of our training by that point that she interpreted my desires without me having to outright ask her. The instant my back felt that weapon, it was transported out of the enemy’s hands and into my own.

In that moment, Larissa’s telepathic voice in my head warned, Security field, get to a host! 

Right, the security field that would disintegrate anyone who wasn’t either cleared or possessing someone who was. Grimacing, I threw myself backward, colliding straight with one of the other soldiers as my item-sense let me know exactly where he was. As I crashed into the man, I literally crashed into him, possessing the guy even as we both went tumbling backward. 

Just before possessing my new (hopefully very brief) host, I had released both my own weapon, and the other guard’s pike. Before they could finish falling, I snapped both of his hands out to catch hold of them.  Holding each, I turned, hurling the pike across the hallway and into the chest of one of the guys who was trying to shoot me with a slugthrower. Again, I felt that muted sense of pleasure as Tabbris made sure that it wouldn’t overwhelm me.

On top of all that, the other girl had been constantly intercepting anything that was thrown at me. She used my item sense to keep track of where the nearest guns were pointed, and intercepted either bullets with more of those kevlar cloths, or lasers by switching on my energy-absorption. It was like having a copilot riding right alongside in my head to keep track of all that extra stuff that would have been too distracting for me to deal with. I was almost glad that my current state (possessing someone meant that my body wasn’t exactly physical, so she couldn’t do anything more with the enchanted cloths) would give her a little bit of a break, brief as it would be.

A second later, we passed through the field. I caught a glimpse of Larissa and Apollo in unwilling hosts of their own as a red light seemed to scan over all of us. It only took a moment, and seemed utterly inconsequential. But I knew that if any of the others had been here, or if we had been caught without a host, it would have been… bad. Very bad.

Dismissing my current host once the danger was past, I jumped right back out of him, letting the man fall unconscious behind me. By that point, the guy with the laser sword was there, bringing that glowing weapon straight for my neck. I brought my staff up to intercept it, and saw a brief grin cross the green-skinned man’s face.

Back at the base, we had established that my energy absorption power wouldn’t work very well on something like that laser sword. It could make the blade flicker somewhat, but then would be overloaded quickly and I would be just as damaged or even dead as any normal person a second later. I could only absorb so much at one time, and a blade tended to stay in one place long enough to overwhelm me. So, anything worse than a glancing blow, even with my energy absorption up, would be really bad news.

And this guy clearly knew that. He knew that his laser weapon would cut straight through my regular staff like butter, then keep right on going through me the exact same way.

Except it didn’t. Because I had a little trick up my sleeve. As the lightsaber neared my weapon, I focused on the energy that I had just absorbed a few seconds earlier from those lasers, along with what Tabbris had made us absorb. For a moment, a glowing green outline surrounded my staff, just as the lightsaber connected with it. The laser sword bounced off, and I caught a glimpse of that knowing grin turning into a look of shock and confusion just before I spun the staff around. With that glowing energy surrounding it, the shaft sliced right through the man’s own neck, severing his head from his body.

Yeah, that was one of my new tricks. Not only could I hold the energy that I absorbed for a bit longer than before, but with help from Apollo over this past week, I had also figured out how to surround myself (or my weapon, in this case) with that same energy. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was pretty damn useful. Case in point.

Unfortunately, as the beheaded guy fell, another figure appeared right where he had been. I barely had a flash of realization that he had actually been possessed before the Seosten’s fist collided with my face, knocking me back a step as a flash of pain exploded in my temple and nose.

The guy looked like he was barely older than me, maybe by a few years. I knew that wasn’t true, considering the way they aged. But still, he looked young. His long, black hair was fashioned into a tight ponytail, and he had these very pale green eyes that almost seemed white at first glance. The pupils were barely dark enough to stand out from the regular white of his eyes. If this had been a TV show, I would have taken that as a sign that the guy was blind. But he clearly wasn’t, considering the way he was focused on me, meeting my gaze. That, and I was pretty sure that blindness was something that the Seosten could and would probably fix.

He tried to follow up his first attack by snatching a dagger from his belt and driving it into my gut, but I had recovered from my surprise by that point, and managed to snap my staff up just in time to knock the blade aside with a grunt. This was followed instantly by bringing the other end of the staff up to block the subsequent punch from his other hand. But that was a feint, and his foot suddenly collided with my stomach in a blow that would have put me on the ground if I hadn’t had an increased strength and pain tolerance. As it was, I stumbled and he took quick advantage by lashing out with that knife once more. That time, I barely managed to turn aside from the more dangerous swipe, taking a cut across my shoulder and another around my bicep in rapid succession.

He was fast. Goddamn, he was so fucking fast. Even with my own slightly enhanced speed and more enhanced reflexes, I could barely try to keep up with him. The guy was clearly boosting. And he had the skill to back up that boost. It was crystal clear in that moment that surprise over my staff blocking his laser sword was the only reason I had been able to kill his host so quickly.

And speaking of that particular weapon, the man kicked his foot out and popped the handle up into his waiting hand before igniting it once more. Now he had a laser sword in one hand and a knife in the other. Fan-freaking-tastic.

Plus, not only could I not just count on my energy absorption to deal with the weapon, I also couldn’t throw up a portal to block it when he swung the thing at me. Not when it came at me lengthwise. Because while I had gotten much faster at creating the portals under pressure, we had also discovered a drawback to my small portals. While they would cut anything in half if it went through them and then the portal was shut off, the thing had to actually fit through the portal to begin with. Basically, it couldn’t be wider than the portal. It could be longer and just put the part of it that fit through, but if the object was wider than the portal, the entire thing simply passed through it as if there was nothing there. I didn’t know if it was a safety feature or what, but I couldn’t just cut something large by putting a small portal in front of it as it passed through. It would act like there was no portal at all.

So no way to instantly win just by putting a portal in front of the swinging blade. Which was going to be a bit of a pain considering how fast this guy was. Plus, there was the fact that if I focused too much on the energy blade itself, he’d sneak in a vicious stab with the regular knife. All in all, this was going to be somewhat tricky.

He danced in quickly then, the dagger in his left hand lashing out with a quick snap of his wrist, like the lunge of a snake toward my left side. I took a quick stutter step backwards, pivoting back and away on my right foot to avoid the longer reach of his energy blade as it cut through the air where my shoulder had just been. I could hear and feel the heat from the blade as it passed close to me.

With my right side to the man and his laser sword almost directly across my chest, he instantly began to snap his sword that way to cut me in half.

But (thankfully) I was faster than that. Ducking and pivoting simultaneously, I let his energy blade pass just over my back before popping up to lash out with a kick. He was kicking at me at the same time, and our legs collided in midair. I felt a flash of pain in my shin, but ignored it as much as I had ignored the cuts I’d already suffered, as well as that punch to the face. There would be time to assess injuries later. Hopefully.

The Seosten’s sword was swinging down from up high in on overhead blow. So I stepped in quickly, my staff snapping up and out to hit not the weapon itself, but the inside of his elbow in order to throw off his aim. My ultimate goal was to try to make him actually drop the sword, but I really wasn’t counting on that much. I would just settle for not being cut in half. Which was probably a pretty firm goal of almost everyone out there without something like a worm’s ability to survive that kind of thing, come to think of it.

As I stood in close to the man, my free hand suddenly snapped down seemingly of its own volition, catching hold of the man’s wrist with the knife that he’d been trying to shove into my stomach just then. Tabbris was still on top of things.

My thoughts focused on possessing the man to end this, but before I could gather myself for it, pain exploded in the front of my face once again. That time, rather than punching, the man had headbutted me, making me stagger backward and release him. Worse, I caught a brief glimpse of that glowing energy as he brought the sword spinning downward to put it through my back as I stumbled onto one knee.

A quick burst from my staff sent me into a sideways roll, right as the blade cut through the floor where I had just been. The Seosten man tried to follow up by coming after me before I could rise, but the roll had put me right where I wanted to be: next to one of the fallen soldiers. My foot kicked out, catching hold of the butt of the dead man’s laser rifle. A quick thought took it from my foot to my hands, and I fired a trio of shots at the incoming Seosten. He ducked and pivoted out of the way, moving too quick for the shots to hit him, just as I had expected.

But it bought me time and distance for what I needed to do. Which, in this case, was to point the weapon at myself and pull the trigger several times as quickly as I could. As the lasers struck me, I absorbed their energy, channeling it into my weapon while popping back to my feet. The staff began to glow once more, and I lunged at the man just in time to intercept his swinging blade with it. Now, I had a few seconds where I could actually block his weapon with mine. The fight was slightly less unfair. Slightly.

What followed was a rapid series of blocks and counters that even I couldn’t completely follow correctly. We were both attacking and countering so fast that a normal person wouldn’t have been able to follow it. Our weapons spun and collided, bouncing off each other as we both pressed for an advantage that simply wasn’t there. Spin, parry, stab, block, duck, everything was moving in fast forward. And neither of us were giving any ground at all. This guy was really good.

On the plus side, my enhanced stamina meant that I wasn’t even the least bit winded by all of this. I was pretty sure that, if it came down to it, I could beat the guy just by outlasting him. He would get tired before I did, and he would make a mistake before I did. I just had to hold on until he did.

As we broke away from each other that time, the man kept his energy blade in front of him while staring at me. He was panting a little bit, but there was also something else to his expression: a smile. He looked happy about our exchange, happy that he hadn’t already killed me.

“You,” the Seosten started, “would make a most worthy vessel to put against the Fomorians. Abandon this foolishness, and come to fight the true threat. We could do amazing work together. There is no need for us to be enemies.”

I coughed, keeping my weapon up just in case. “Yeah,” I retorted, “sorry but I don’t really see the people who enslave entire races as the good guys. I’m pretty sure you’re both complete dicks.”

“You have a simplistic view of the situation,” the guy snapped back at me. “But with any luck, you will—”

He stopped suddenly glancing down at something on his wrist before looking back up again. His voice was flat. “This will be continued,” he promised me. “I truly hope that you survive.”

Before I could ask what that was supposed to mean, the guy disappeared right in front of my eyes. Actually, they were all disappearing. All around me, the soldiers, conscious or unconscious, or even dead, were disappearing. I was left there in the corridor with just Apollo and Larissa.

“It worked?” I blurted, looking around while catching my breath.

Larissa nodded. “We stalled them long enough. The ship’s computer detected the imminent collision and destruction, so it initiated their lifepod system.”

The lifepod system. Basically, if the computer of the ship knew that it was about to be destroyed, it would take every registered being on it and teleport them to the nearest safe location. At this point, the ship was empty except for us.

“How soon until we, you know, collide?” I asked. “And I thought there’d be more alarms than this.”

“I disabled them.” That was Athena, stepping out of the other room. “And collision is imminent.” She looked toward Apollo with a gesture. “It’s time.”

The man nodded at that, pulling something from his pocket. It looked like a small metal stick with runes inscribed along it. “All right,” he replied, “everyone get in close.”

We did, getting close to him as he triggered the spell he had put on the stick. A second later, we were standing somewhere else. Well, we hadn’t really gone anywhere, technically. The place we were, which looked just like a simple white room, was just a pocket dimension located within the stick that Apollo had been holding. The stick which was still back in that ship, while it was colliding with the facility on the moon and the energy from that reactor was exploding into a wave that would destroy the protective spell that had been over it to prevent anyone from teleporting down there. We were here so that we didn’t have to sit through all that, which would have been a bit…well, dangerous, to say the least.

“Sorry,” I started then, while taking the chance to collect myself and breathe for a moment. “Sorry I wasn’t more help back there. You guys had to deal with most of them.”

The three of them looked at each other, and then Larissa’s hand was on my shoulder. “You both did extremely well,” she assured us. “You kept up remarkably.”

Apollo nodded at that while giving me a charming smile. “Trust me, kid, you fighting a full Seosten soldier to what amounted to a standstill, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” He paused then, before winking at me. “Even if he was blind.”

My mouth fell open at that, and I blurted, “He was? I mean, I thought he might be, but I dismissed it because he was fighting so well. And he seemed to look right at me. Plus, you know, I figured if there was any kind of blindness, you guys could fix it. I mean, not you guys, the Seosten.”

“In most cases,” Athena informed me, “they could. What your opponent back there possesses is a very rare genetic mutation, which allows them to see, as we do, only through the eyes of a host. It was borne of experimentation when our scientists were working on ways to prevent so many lost pregnancies.”

“So he was born blind,” I noted. “But still, couldn’t they just fix that?”

It was Apollo who answered. “They may be blind as far as you or I are concerned. But their condition allows them to see energy. They see heat, they see magical energy, electricity, things like that. They see a lot of things beyond normal sight. Hell, they can even see sound waves and concussive force in the air. So while it could be fixed, some of them choose to keep it that way, and learn to use their version of sight.”

Staring that way for a moment, I flailed. “No wonder that fight was such a pain in the ass,” I blurted out loud, my voice a high squeak, “that guy was fucking Daredevil! I deserve points for fighting fucking Daredevil!”

“And yet,” Athena pointed out then, “You didn’t simply survive your encounter, you actually performed quite admirably against him.”

“You did,” Larissa confirmed. “I was keeping an eye on you, just in case I needed to step in. But you held your own. Very impressive.”

Smiling despite myself at that while a slight blush crossed my face, I tapped the side of my head with one finger. “Couldn’t do it without my partner.”

As I felt Tabbris’s embarrassment and delight, Athena gestured. “That’s long enough, it’s time to go back before they manage to recover.”

Apollo obliged. With a wave of his hand, he disabled the spell. An instant later, we were back in the same corridor we had been in before. But things had changed. The place looked half destroyed. There were dark scorch marks everywhere, along with large, jagged holes in the walls and floor that left exposed wires and pipes that all crackled occasionally with random spurts of power. Electricity sparked in the air from some of those exposed wires, and I saw several fires. There was different colored smoke everywhere, and part of the corridor was bent in the wrong direction. All in all, this place looked pretty badly damaged. And I was sure that the rest of the ship was in just as bad of shape. After all, the thing had just collided with a moon before the reactor exploded. The ship was ruined. And I had to think that it had probably done a pretty bad number on the ground itself.

I was glad that the ship’s crew had been teleported off before the impact. I didn’t want to be even partly responsible for that many horrible deaths like that, even if they were our enemies.

“Call down the others,” Athena instructed. “It’s time for the next step.”

Right, now that the protective spell was down, the rest of our little group could join us. With a nod, I touched the communication pin that I had been provided with. “Okay guys,” I announced, “we’re ready for you down here.”

Well, the others clearly hadn’t been asleep while they waited for us. Almost the exact moment that I had finished saying that, a glowing portal appeared right across from us. A second later, Haiden emerged with his weapon raised. He was joined quickly by Vanessa, Tristan, Jazz, Gordon, and Sands. They all came ready for a fight, relaxing marginally only when they saw that there were no immediate threats.

“Mom!” Showing just how worried she had been while she was stuck back on the other ship, Sands ran directly to her mother, embracing the woman tightly.

With a smile, Larissa returned the embrace, before nodding to everyone else. “All right,” she started quietly. “Looks like we’re all here.”

Roxa, with Gidget ready and alert at her side, spoke up. “I don’t know what that looked like from your guys’ end, but it was pretty fucking crazy from ours. They had a bunch of ships going and trying to stop this one. They must’ve blown half the ship off trying to knock it off course or destroy it. But nothing worked. They couldn’t blow it up in time.” A dark, feral smile appeared then. “Probably what they get for making the thing so tough to begin with.”

Tristan’s head bobbed up and down quickly as he stood there with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form attached to his arm. “Yeah,” he agreed, “then it hit that tower just outside the main lab and just…” Throwing his hands (One of them covered by that enormous cannon) up and out, he made an explosion noise. “It was pretty damn cool.”

“It will also have attracted a lot of attention,” Athena pointed out. “We need to move quickly now, before Kushiel’s forces—”

“I truly don’t think-“ a new, yet familiar voice spoke up then, “—that it is Kushiel whom you should be worried about.”

Radueriel. The Seosten inventor was there at the broken entrance of the corridor. All around him were uniformed and armed soldiers. Each stood at attention in the way that made it clear that he was using his connection to them. They were all under his control. And all of them were pointing their weapons at us.

Before any of us could move, there was the sound of ripping, tearing metal. We spun back the other way, just as part of the wall behind us was being ripped off. There stood another collection of soldiers, including the giant troll that had just ripped the wall open. We were surrounded.

Then it got worse. That huge troll shapeshifted right in front of our eyes. Shrinking somewhat (but not too much) the thing took the form of a still very large, handsome man. The guy looked like a bodybuilder’s wet dream. He was a huge slab of beef, with muscles growing on muscles. He was what Conan the barbarian wished he could be. Hell, the guy looked like he could dribble Conan. He pretty much defined beefcake.

“Abaddon,” Athena spat the name while glaring that way.

Shit, right. Abaddon. Or, as we knew him on Earth, Ares. She’d told me about him. His ability allowed him to essentially take the shape and form of any previous host he’d had. He could even take on their powers that way. Anytime a form he was using was killed, he lost access to it permanently, or at least until he possessed them again. But it meant that you had to kill every single form that he had access to before killing the man himself would take. Hell, even if you killed him in his normal Seosten form, he’d just lose access to it for a time and have to take another shape until it regenerated.

Basically, Ares was a giant pain in the ass, and the fact that you had to kill him so many times before it actually ‘took’ was why he’d built up a reputation for recklessness. But, reckless as he was, the man was still incredibly dangerous. There was a reason he was known as a war god.

And now, we were caught between him and Radueriel, along with an army on both sides.

“As I said,” Radueriel smoothly announced while the soldiers around him all readied their weapons, the hum of their growing energy audible, “it is not Kushiel with whom you should be concerned right now. You should find yourselves quite busy with us.”

Apollo replied with a little shrug, “I don’t know. Two Olympians versus two Olympians and their assorted friends? Seems like this shouldn’t take too long at all.”

A chuckle came from Ares then. The big guy lifted his chin. “Who said we only brought two?”

With those words, a half dozen of the soldiers around us straightened up and a glowing figure appeared beside each of them. More Seosten.

“They may not have been bridge crew,” Radueriel noted, “but they were very much members of the Olympus. And they were also close friends of our dearly departed Charmeine. Which means that they are very much interested in having a discussion…” His hand rose then to point directly at me.

“With her.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-03

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Hey, I addressed the man whose body I was… borrowing, I don’t want to go rooting around in your head. Could you tell me your name, just so I know what to call you? Please?

After passing through that doorway, we were in a narrow corridor that was clearly some kind of maintenance tunnel. There were various flashing lights here and there, along with signs in other languages. If I’d known anything about the ship and actually belonged on it, I was pretty sure the lights and signs together would tell me exactly where I should go and what I should be doing.

There were no audible alarms. Which made sense, as I doubted that having an alarm blaring constantly while the crew was trying to concentrate would be a good idea. They clearly knew the battle was happening.

Not… not killing, please. Not killing. Ylek not make you fight. Ylek not bad. Please. Not killing.

It was the voice of my current host. He sounded absolutely petrified, like he was afraid that I would kill him just for asking not to be killed. If nothing else, that told me a bit about what working under Kushiel’s authority was like. Not that I’d really needed the hint.

I grimaced inwardly then, while following Athena as she immediately turned left down the corridor. I’m not gonna kill you, I promised. That’s not what we’re–look, we’re just here to rescue Kushiel’s prisoners, okay? That’s it. We’re using this ship as a way of getting down to the prison. We don’t want to kill any more of you guys than we have to. You said your name was Ylek? It sounded like Eee-leck, but somehow the idea of the correct spelling filled my head. Clearly a byproduct of hearing the name directly from his thoughts.

That… that is… my person, he replied, still sounding just as terrified as he had before.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that just telling this guy I wasn’t going to kill him wasn’t gonna convince him of anything. Which was probably a result of being enslaved by a race like the Seosten. Something told me that most of them weren’t big on keeping their promises or playing nice. And, unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to spend talking him around, as much as I would’ve liked to. So, I was just going to have to show him that I meant what I said.

By that point, Athena had led us to another doorway. Stepping through that one led to a much more chaotic scene than the empty corridor we had just left. It was big enough to drive a truck through, and I saw people of every shape, size, and description (literally) rushing back and forth in every direction. People were shouting over each other, with code phrases about weapon systems, shields, maneuvers, and more were being thrown around. Everyone seemed to know exactly where they were going and exactly how to avoid everyone else that was going somewhere else. People were sprinting back and forth, leaping or ducking under each other and barking questions and replies to one another. It was like a delicate, intricately choreographed ballet mixed with being at the mall the night before Christmas.

More importantly, no one was paying any attention to us. No one cared what we were doing, because they had their own jobs to do and no one was going to take the time to check on someone else. As far as they were concerned, we were just more crew members off doing our duty. Another indication that the Seosten weren’t accustomed to someone using their own tricks against them.

I supposed it was kind of a Catch-22 for them. If they spent too much effort developing ways and teaching their subjects ways to detect and prevent possession, it could really easily backfire by taking away the main thing that they used to keep the much larger population of slaves in line.

Athena never even slowed down. She knew exactly where she was going, and I felt another flash of gratitude that she was with us. We never would’ve been able to pull any of this off without her and the Aelaestiam.

The corridors got less and less busy as Athena led us onward through a seemingly endless and confusing maze of them. We turned left, then straight, then left again, then right, then straight. Then we used an invisible elevator lift thing to go up a level. I could still hear voices or see people here and there, but we were definitely out of the area that was the main thoroughfare during a battle like this. Through it all, the Seosten woman never slowed down.

At least, she never slowed down until we reached what looked like a giant vault door. The thing had to be twenty feet tall and just as wide. It was made of some kind of metal that I was guessing was probably heavy enough to take anything we could possibly dish out to it, with obviously protective spell runes inscribed all along the surface.

Standing in front of the door were two guards in black armor, their weapons raised as we appeared. “Halt!” one of them barked. “State your orders.”

Apollo took that as his cue. His cat-like Rakshasa stepped, raising both hands in a show of camaraderie. “Sorry,” he started, “you know how Trierarch Alfens is about new maneuvers when he’s trying to impress the Praetor with his ingenuity. He gets an idea and the rest of us have to figure out how to make it work.”

The two men hesitated, glancing to one another before one of them asked, “You have orders from the Trierarch to be down here? What are you supposed to be doing? Aren’t you all  stationed in maintenance bay Upsilon Zeta Three?”

“No, no, our orders are to be here,” Apollo corrected him.

“Your orders are to be here?” There was a certain dullness to the response, incredulity that was barely hanging on.

Nodding, Apollo added, “Yes. Actually, we’re supposed to be in the chamber right now.”

Once more, the two guards looked at each other. “In the chamber?” One of them hesitated before reaching for something on his belt. “I’ll call it in and double check.”

Smoothly, Apollo cut in. “You already did, remember?” As the two looked at him in confusion, he continued. “You called it in just a second ago. Trierarch Alfens applauded you for your responsibility and initiative, and told you to let us through. Do you really think he’ll appreciate being interrupted a second time? He might just change his mind about those commendations.”

“Right… yes, we called it in.” Moving his hand away from his belt, the figure on the left nodded before moving to a small camera on the wall. He leaned close, letting the thing scan his face. There was a single beep, followed by an inquisitive tone from the matching camera on the other side. That cued the second guard to do the same thing there. As he did so, the runes on the vault-like door stopped glowing, and there was a series of distinct clicking and thunking sounds of the various locks disengaging.

“Nice, thank you,” Apollo complimented them. “But now, what you guys really need to do is lay down and get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” The men were clearly beyond confused at that. “We’re on duty… and there’s a battle going on.”

Making his Rakshasa’s head shake, Apollo corrected them. “The battle’s over. We won. And you’re both in your quarters. See, those are your beds right there.” He pointed to the empty floor. “It’s been a really long day, you’re both exhausted, but proud of yourselves for repelling that invasion. You’re up for awards in the morning. Maybe you’ll even be promoted. But for now, you’re tired. You’re ready to sleep in your soft, comfortable beds.”

As he spoke, both of the guards slowly moved to where he had indicated, laying down while his voice droned on quietly. They just laid down like that, right on the floor. A moment later, both of them were still, faint snoring sounds coming from them.

That was Apollo’s Olympian power. The longer that someone let him talk to them, the more he could convince them of increasingly ridiculous things. It was like the Jedi Mind Trick except on steroids. Given enough time to talk, he could literally stand in front of an army and convince them that there was an even bigger army right behind him, even if they could clearly see an empty field. In a question between, ‘who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes’, the answer was always him. His words painted a picture that his power made their brain accept as truth, regardless of any other evidence or knowledge.

With that done, Athena strode forward. The big vault doors finished their long, complicated series of unlocking, and then whooshed open smoothly. On the other side, I saw a massive room with an enormous glowing red orb floating in the middle of some kind of forcefield. The orb was a solid hundred feet in diameter, with flashes of black lightning coursing through it here and there that kept appearing and disappearing.

We’d barely stepped into the large chamber before a figure appeared. It was a troll, a positively ginormous troll, standing a solid twelve feet tall and with a body built like the Hulk. The thing came right at us the second we appeared, letting out a warning bellow while one of those huge arms swung for us.

Athena didn’t even hesitate. She had already stepped out of her own host, who fell unconscious to the ground behind her while Excalibur appeared in her hand. Without missing a beat, she leapt past the troll’s swinging arm to cut straight through him.

And by through him, that was literally through him. The sword seemed to pass through the troll without harming him at all, like he was a ghost. There was no blood or anything. Yet, there was a scream that didn’t seem to come from the troll at all. It came from him, but his mouth wasn’t open.

The scream was cut off almost as soon as it had started, and a second figure fell out of the first. It appeared in a glowing energy form at first, before quickly solidifying into a female figure, slim to the point of near androgyny, with short red hair and incredibly expressive dark blue eyes. A second after emerging, she fell to the floor with an obvious sword wound in her side.

The troll that was left behind, meanwhile, jerked backward and flailed with a surprised cry until Larissa appeared in the air in front of him. Catching onto the troll’s shoulders and holding him tightly, she blew a cloud of smoke into his face. The giant figure twisted, coughed, and then fell unconscious to the floor, collapsing with a heavy thud while Larissa rode him all the way down.

As for the Seosten that had literally been cut out of him, she was bleeding profusely, but still tried to push herself up. At least, she tried to sit up until Athena put the blade of that sword near her throat.

“Stop,” the regal woman ordered flatly. Her voice was calm, yet firm, and brooked no disagreement. “Do you know who I am?”

There was a brief pause, and I saw anger at her own helplessness twist its way across the fallen Seosten’s features before she spat the word, “Yes.”

“Good,” Athena replied, “then you know what this sword is. And you know why you have not been able to contact any others you may be mind-melded to. Were you in mid-conversation with anyone else? Will they notice your absence immediately? Do understand that I will know if you lie.”

The other Seosten hesitated once more, before giving a slow sigh as her head shook. “No.”

Nodding in satisfaction to that, Athena informed her, “Do not cause more annoyance than you are worth, and you will survive this capture.”

“Um, sorry, what?” I couldn’t stop myself from cutting in then. “What the hell just– Did you really just cut a Seosten out of their host without hurting the host? And what was that about her not reaching anyone in her mind-meld?” That had to be referring to that thing where Seosten on a mission or in the same group/team were connected and could share information basically telepathically. Somehow, this Seosten had been blocked from doing that.

“Excalibur,” Athena announced in response to that, “is a very useful tool. Yes, among other abilities, it is able to harm and even kill the Seosten possessing a body, without causing any harm to the being that they are possessing. And, when needed, it may also project a field that interrupts certain magical effects. The Seosten mental meld is one of them, along with others. As far as anyone attempting to contact her now will be concerned, she is asleep.”

Holy shit. I had thought that the woman was effective before, but with Excalibur, she could kill Seosten without hurting their host bodies? And stop them from communicating with each other through their mind connections? That was… that was…

The Seosten must’ve really hated Arthur, Tabbris announced, her voice full of as much awe as I felt. Hell, as connected as we were, our awe was honestly probably feeding off each other. Actually, I was pretty sure that I could feel the awe coming from Ylek too.

He actually seemed to forget to be afraid of me for a moment then, as his mental voice whispered, The dragon-sword. She wields the dragon-sword.

You guys know about Excalibur? I quickly asked.

It is legend, he hesitantly responded, like he was still a bit nervous that I’d torture him for answering or something. Or maybe he was afraid I’d torture him for giving the wrong answer. The Author will write the end of the Empire.

Author! That was Tabbris, piping up. He must mean Arthur! It’s like a umm… umm, misunderstanding? They heard Arthur but it changed to Author.

“That,” Larissa managed finally, dragging my attention back to the outside world, “is a very important sword.”

“That it is,” Athena replied, “and it will eventually be returned to its rightful owner. In due time.”

“I’m on an alien ship, on the other side of the universe,” I started, in Ylek’s gravelly voice, “with Athena and Apollo, on our way to fight Hera, so we can rescue Artemis. Which is why I don’t have time to ask more about how the literal King Arthur is supposed to eventually get his sword back, because Athena is also Nimue. Also, Apollo is Satan.”

Raising an eyebrow, Larissa asked, “Are you okay over there?”

My head gave a quick nod, and I squeaked out, “Y-yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Sometimes it just really hits me how insane all this is. That’s all. I mean seriously, what even is my life?”

“Trust me, kid,” Apollo interjected then, “it’ll make a great story someday. Especially if we pull this off.”

“Pfft.” Shaking my head, I retorted, “I’m pretty sure no one would want to read this as a story. It’s entirely too confusing and hard to keep track of for me, and I’m the one that’s actually living it.”

“Well,” Larissa announced, “let’s add a little more subterfuge and action to your story, shall we?” She gestured toward the Seosten that Athena was still holding in place with Excalibur. “Looks like a worthy candidate to me.”

“Yes,” Athena agreed. “See what you can learn that she has not… volunteered.”

Swallowing, I thought to Ylek, Well, it’s been nice knowing you. Like I said, I’m sorry we had to… um, enslave you. Seriously, we just… have to save the people that your master’s been torturing and experimenting on. It’s nothing personal against you.

It is never personal, the reply came, because we are not persons to them.

Okay, that one hit home. Grimacing, I hesitated before stepping out of the man and back to my own body. Turning to face the squat, white-furred figure, I spoke up. “Athena?”

“Yes.” She knew what I was asking. The woman spoke to Ylek then without taking her sword away from the other Seosten woman’s neck. “You may stay here, or you may go to our brig. You will be questioned when the battle is over to ensure that you are not a danger to us, and then released to either do as you wish, or stay with the Aelaestiam. Do you wish to go as a temporary prisoner, or stay here?”

“We kind of need an answer quick,” I reminded him. “We’re in a bit of a rush right now.”

“I… Ylek… I will… go?” he offered, looking taken aback and confused by the choice.

Larissa moved immediately. She had one of those teleport badges in her hand that she had summoned from some pocket dimension. “Put this on,” she ordered. “It’s already set to take prisoners. You’ll go straight to the brig on one of the Aelaestiam ships. We’ll… find you when this is over.”

While she was taking care of that, my attention turned back to the kneeling Seosten woman. She was staring at me with a narrowed gaze as I moved closer, raising my hand. Ready, partner? This probably won’t be as easy as the last guy.

We can do it, Tabbris replied firmly. For Mama.

Smiling a little inwardly, I agreed. For Mama.

The Seosten woman looked confused for a moment as I approached with my hand out, before her eyes widened and she tried to push herself away from me despite the sword. “No!” she blurted, “I will not be enslaved by a human child! It is an abominat–” She choked as Athena caught her by the hair to hold her in place. “Abomination!”

“Wow,” I started flatly. “Gotta tell ya, I think I’m gonna take that one personally.”

With that, I reached down, catching one of the woman’s flailing arms as she struggled. Then my hand caught hold of hers, and I focused.

Then I was possessing her. And I had been right. This was harder than the last time. Even harder than it had been when I’d possessed the Seosten back in the slave camp. If Tabbris hadn’t been with me, using her own experience to help me use Charmeine’s power effectively, I probably wouldn’t have been able to seize control. Even as it was, we sat there for almost a full minute, the Seosten’s body twitching now and then as the two (really three) of us fought for control.

Finally, however, Tabbris and I managed it. I told the woman’s tightly closed eyes to open, and then I was seeing through them. I felt her panic and disgust, as well as her horror at the thought that a dirty, disgusting ape like me had taken control of her. I felt her anger, both at herself for losing and at the situation. And, beyond all that, I felt her… uh, feelings toward the woman holding her at swordpoint.

Okay, I had expected to feel a lot of emotions after possessing this woman, but lust was not one of them. She… uh, apparently had a crush on Athena. Which was understandable, but still. Wow.

“Uh.” Shaking that off, I looked up at the woman in question. “I’m okay. I mean, it’s me. It’s Flick. I’m in control.”

Athena watched me for another moment before nodding as she resheathed the sword and stepped back. “Is she thinking anything important for us to know about?”

Hesitating, I decided that the fact that my host had a crush on Athena was neither relevant, nor my place to say anything about. “Nope,” I replied, “just that she’s really mad about this whole situation. And she really doesn’t like me very much. Or humans in general.”

“Her opinion of us isn’t going to get much better any time soon,” Larissa pointed out while gesturing. “Come on, the console’s over here.”

Stop now, the Seosten in my head ordered, in a voice that was clearly accustomed to being obeyed. You will not take one step toward the slip-reactor.

The slip-reactor. That was what that big orb was. The way it had been explained to me, there were three main engine compartments. First, the one we were in right now, which housed the slip-reactor. That provided power for the slide-drive, the thing that allowed the ship to essentially go to warp speed or whatever.

Both this compartment and the one above were working on a skeleton crew during a battle. There was no point to having people manning the thing that let them jump from planet to planet when there was no intention of leaving the immediate area. Instead, the whole maintenance crew would be sent into the main engine room to keep the local/sublight engines running. Which was what we, or Athena rather, had been counting on.

Ignoring the threats and insults from the woman in my head, I walked her to the console in question, privately asking, Tabbris, any luck?

I got it! I could hear the pride in her voice. I got the codes from her head while she was distracted.

Good job, partner. We reached the console then, and I had Tabbris relay them to me while using the Seosten woman’s hands to input them. It was a long code, and the system scanned her face as well as pricking her fingers twice each through the process to make sure it was really her. But finally, a holographic display lit up in front of the console, and I stepped back. “There, it’s unlocked. You’re in.”

“Excellent work, Lady Felicity,” Athena announced while stepping past me. Her fingers flew over the console that I had just opened up for her. The console which happened to be connected directly into the reactor and could function as a set of emergency back-up controls for the ship itself. Controls that could override the main bridge.

They’d be working to kick her out of the system as soon as they realized she was there, of course. But Athena had high authority codes of her own that she could use now that she was actually in the system, and overriding those would take time. Time they wouldn’t have. Essentially, I had used my current Seosten host to open the door, and Athena was using every code she had collected over the years to prop that door open just long enough to do what she needed to do.  

“Better get ready,”  Apollo noted while looking to Larissa and me. “This is going to take a few minutes to go through, and they’ll be sending everything they have down through that hallway to stop us.”

He was right. We’d been able to sneak our way to the reactor. But that was over now. The Seosten wouldn’t just be trying to kick Athena out of the computer system remotely. They’d also be trying to do so physically. And since all of her attention was taken up with taking over the controls and setting the ship to do what we wanted it to, she wouldn’t be able to help with the physical part. The actual fighting would be up to the three of us.

It was about to get nasty around here.

Popping out of her own host and letting the body drop to the floor unconscious, Larissa nodded. “I’d rather do this in my own body. I know how it moves.”

Apollo gave a short nod. “Just make sure you’re in a host when we pass through the security field down there. Otherwise…” He left the rest unsaid, since we already knew the answer. Any living body that wasn’t attuned to the security field when the ship passed through it would be disintegrated. That was why we couldn’t just have the others teleport over here to join us now that we weren’t sneaking anymore. We would still need to be possessing bodies that were allowed through their security, until we managed to take it down.

What… the voice of my current host was clearly confused. What… is this? What are you doing? If you blow up this ship, it will not win the battle for you.

See, I started, that’s not exactly what we’re doing. I mean, I’ll tell you what we’re doing, but you’re not gonna like it. You know how that facility down there stops anyone from teleporting near it? Well, the short version of the plan is that this ship can bypass all the magic spells that are protecting the place. So we’re gonna use the slide-drive to make a tiny jump right down there, crash it… this ship that is, into the moon, and then use all the power in that reactor right there to overload that defense tower so that our friends can teleport down and join us.

So yeah, our plan is to crash this ship into the moon and then blow it up. You know, essentially.

For a moment, there was absolute silence inside my head. Then the ranting started.

See? I put in over the sound of it.

I told you that you weren’t gonna like it.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-02

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As the intense display of firepower erupted on the screen in front of us, no one spoke for a few seconds. It was Tristan who finally found his voice, sounding as awed as a little kid seeing fireworks for the first time. “Oh, my God. I mean, I saw some big fights with Granddad Nick, but nothing like… like this.”

On either side of the boy, I saw Vanessa and Tabbris each take one of his hands. The latter looked back toward me, her nervousness showing before I gave her a reassuring thumbs up. I’d noticed, as much as she had gotten better about spending time on her own, Tabbris still liked to know where I was at any given time. She clearly loved her older siblings (and they loved her), but I was a safe retreat for her when things were overwhelming, and I’d felt her fear that I might disappear somehow. Any time she possessed anyone else in training, she always went right back to possessing me again before we did anything else, because she wanted to have that safety net so that she could jump back into my body whenever she needed to.

Athena gave a nod of satisfaction then, dragging my attention back to the situation at hand. “The fleets will remain occupied for the time being.”

“You’re not worried about not being in control and giving orders yourself?” I asked. “I mean, those are your people out there.”

Her eyes met mine. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I have trained them for this kind of action for many years. Praetor Kulls was handpicked for this command, and the men and women under him all know their duty. Interjecting myself now would show a lack of faith in them that would hurt far more than it helped. If the time comes that they require my aid, I will be there for them. But for now, my faith and trust is in their ability.”

It was easy to see what she meant. As I watched through the viewscreen, the battle unfolding right in front of us was indescribably chaotic. The largest of the capital ships were spacing themselves out, exchanging staggering firepower in a nasty slugging match, while the moderately sized ships engaged in more maneuvers around one another, both sides working to create an opening for their fighters and shuttle-sized craft to hit the weak points of the giant ships.

That was, at a glance and after several conversations with Athena, my best estimate of how these kind of battles went. There were the one or two person fighters, the ‘medium’ ships that could hold anywhere between fifty to a few thousand crew members, and the capital ships that held tens to even hundreds of thousands of crew.

Very broadly and generally speaking, it kind of worked almost like a paper, rock, scissors situation. The fighters were effective against the much larger ships (in enough numbers) specifically because it was hard to target them and they could swarm over weak points. But fighters failed against the medium sized ships because they had enough armor to withstand hits while also being quick enough to target and shoot down the smaller ships more effectively than their larger, slower brethren. Meanwhile, the medium ships may have had the armor to protect themselves from the little fighters, but the capital ships could blow them away easily, and they didn’t have the fighters’ maneuverability. So little ship beat big ship, medium ship beat little ship, and big ship beat medium ship. And they all essentially tied against each other in equal numbers. There were obviously exceptions to all of this, but that was a general understanding of it.

And, of course, there were more than just regular old lasers and that kind of weaponry involved. Even as I watched for those few seconds, I saw portals opening up here and there, bits of ships being partially torn away by some kind of metal-manipulation or telekinetic power before being repaired by the same from the opposite side, random forcefields that popped up, giant spears of ice or stone forming and being thrown back and forth, figures made of fire flying through space, and more. So much more. Everywhere I looked, there was a scene that would have required millions of dollars in special effects shots to pull off in a movie. It was completely batshit insane just to look at, let alone to try to make any sense of.

Beside me, Roxa seemed to have the same impression. The werewolf-Heretic gave a low whistle, head shaking. “Fuck, I wouldn’t wanna be the guy who has to try to make some kind of sense out of all of that chaos. I mean, keeping track of a battle on this scale is bad enough, but add in magic?”

Apollo nodded. “Something this scale, they probably have thousands of mages on both sides, purely focused on working to counter the other side’s spells. What you’re seeing is just the bits that slip through, the… leaks in the dam. If either side slipped too much, you’d see entire ships go down in seconds. Magic,” he added quietly, “can be pretty scary.”

Gordon spoke for all of us then as he flatly and quietly noted, “Then I hope our side doesn’t slip.”

“They will not,” Athena assured us. “As I said, they have been trained for this, and have all of the experience necessary. They will do their duty. We must simply do ours. And to do that, we need an appropriate… there.”  

Lifting a hand, she pointed at the screen, toward one of the enemy ships. It looked almost like a giant tuning fork, honestly. There was one somewhat shorter (I estimated it at about four hundred meters) boxy end that was like the handle. I saw a bulge near the top that looked like the bridge, with four separate heavy cannons surrounding it. Splitting off from the front of that long, boxy part were two sections that were the ‘tines’ of the tuning fork. They were about twice as long as the first section, and along the outside, bottom, and top of each were more guns than I had ever laid eyes on at one time. Seriously, there were cannons packed into what amounted to every square inch of space along those extended ‘tines’ of the ship, facing in every direction.

Meanwhile, there were no cannons in the middle, between the tines. But that space wasn’t empty, by any means. Instead, I saw what looked like a bunch of radar dishes, all facing slightly outward, toward the end of the tines. There were about eighteen of them, nine on each side.

As we watched, each of those ‘radar dishes’ began to glow. The ones on the left gave off a blue light, while the ones on the right were red. That glowing energy grew brighter and more distinct as it rose out of the radar dishes to meet in the middle into a column of destructive purple light, which grew stronger and stronger before finally erupting from the end of the ‘tines’, tearing its way through space, and literally blew through one of the Aelaestiam ships like it wasn’t even there.

I staggered a bit, my eyes widening. Around me, the others did much of the same. The thought that… that there had been people on that ship, people who had come solely to help us save Sariel and the other prisoners, and that they were now… dead, was a lot to suddenly be hit with.

Athena’s expression was stoic, though there was a certain tightness to her eyes that told me she would be expressing her emotions later, likely in private when there wasn’t a mission on the line. “That’s the one. That will be our target. If it can be taken out, the fleet will be in much better shape.”

“You want us to get closer to that thing?” Sands asked, her eyes wide as she stared at it through the screen. “Not to insult the goddess of tactics and strategy or whatever, but do you, um, really think that’s a good idea?”

“It will be alright,” the Seosten woman assured her (and the rest of us). “Lefeunsiek ships are capable of doing extraodinary damage, as you have seen. But they require time to build that energy back up.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. That big gun it’s got can only fire once every few minutes. That’s why it’s got all those smaller weapons around it. Which are, you know, still dangerous.”

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “Dangerous indeed. But not to this ship. The shields and armor of this ship will protect it through a single pass. And that pass will be enough. Provided, of course,” she added then, “that Lord Dries has completed his work.”

“I have.” The voice came from the doorway, as Dries stepped into view. He was quite pointedly not looking toward Athena or Apollo. Actually, he wasn’t really looking at anyone, his attention remaining on the floor as he carefully came in. His hands kept squeezing and then loosening repeatedly as he moved against the wall and made his way to the left side of the bridge, staying as far away from Athena and Tabbris as he could. Finally, the man knelt down and placed a couple of metal objects he had already prepared with spells on the floor. At a touch and a word from him as he glanced toward the ship on the screen, the two objects projected a single portal into the air between them. He had prepared the spell on our way here, using what Athena had told him (or rather, what I had told him that Athena had said to me, since the man really didn’t want to talk to her directly) about the Seosten security spells and monitoring systems.

“There.” Dries moved to the nearest console to where he had set up the portal. His hands moved over the controls, and a moment later, a glowing red circle appeared in the middle of empty space a relatively short distance in front of the Sunstrider.

That was the other end of the portal that he had just set up. According to Athena, Kushiel’s people would be ready for the kind of portals that Yup used. Their security would block anything like that. But this one was something special. During his centuries-long imprisonment, Dries had worked on many different escape plans. He’d cobbled together various spells, both those that he’d learned himself and those that had somehow appeared in his head after he’d killed Hieronymus, likely through that man’s own connection to the original Crossroads Reaper.

Either way, he had taken his own expertise and an understanding of magic that came through his connection to the Reaper and used it to put together some new spells of his own. None of them had freed him (though one in particular had ended up doing much the same, as it summoned the shard of the banishment orb that had led Haiden and the others to him, eventually leading to his rescue in the long run).

And this portal was the result of that extensive, single-minded research and planning combined with the Reaper-knowledge. It was a portal that was mobile. Specifically, when the portal on our end moved, the portal on the opposite end would move to stay exactly the same distance and relative position away from it. Beyond that, that end of the portal was invisible, to avoid giving away its presence. Plus, it would bypass most defenses against teleportation, even if it was limited to a relatively short distance.

Once that was up, Athena moved to a different console, hitting a few buttons there. Immediately, the image on the main screen was split in two. Half was taken up by the view of the space in front of the ship like before. The other half, meanwhile, showed what looked like a blueprint of the tuning-fork ship (Lefeunsiek ship, apparently), along with some of the space around it. At the far corner, there was a red dot.

“The dot,” Athena explained, “is the portal.” She touched another part of the console, and several areas of the ship blueprints turned blue. “These areas are where there should be very minimal crew presence during a battle like this. Position the portal anywhere within those areas, and we should be safe to make the jump over without attracting much attention.”

“Okay, Jokai,” Larissa urged. “You heard her. Take us in.”

That was all the chameleon-man needed to hear. His hands moved to the controls once more, and we were on our way. The Sunstrider slipped past other warring ships, shielded by a squadron of fighters that came up on our side to ensure that we made it.

It wasn’t a smooth approach by any means. There were more of those invisible turrets, more fighters, and even a very persistent enemy ship that was essentially a mobile missile platform. But with our fighter escort, as well as a little help from Larissa and Haiden exercising a couple of their more impressive powers (including creating a forcefield directly over the launching ports for that aforementioned ship’s missile launchers that made them blow up inside the ship they were launching from), we finally made it close to our target ship while sending just enough shots at the thing to make them think that this was a legitimate attack run so that they wouldn’t start wondering why we were getting that close.

“One of minutes,” the man announced as the ship approached. “Can only… keep within area for ten seconds. You… must be through in that time. Fifty of seconds.”

Right, in fifty seconds, we’d have ten seconds to go through the portal. We, in this case, was Athena, Apollo, Larissa, and myself (with Tabbris, of course). We had a specific job to do over there that had to happen before any of us would have a chance of getting into the actual base.

Larissa nodded to me, and I started toward the portal, while Jokai counted down. Tabbris met me partway, her hand catching mine.

Her expression was scared, yet determined. Squeezing her hand, I asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” she replied, and a second later, she was inside me once more, settling into her spot. I felt the familiar comfort of her presence. Whatever happened, we would do this together.

I extended my staff, holding it down for Jaq and Gus to come running up and climb on. Then I moved to the portal. Before I got there, however, another hand caught my arm. That time, it was Dries. The man had come faster than I had ever seen him move, catching me. His eyes were on mine, actually meeting my gaze as he spoke in a quick, beseeching tone. “Be careful,” the man pleaded. “You must come back. You–you must come back to my descendant with me. To Hannah. To Avalon. You must come back.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave the man a short nod. “I’ll be back. I’ll come back. We’re gonna save Sariel, and get out of here.”

Dries kept hold of my arm for another second, before finally releasing me as he stepped back. He looked nervous, or even ashamed of his interjection, like he thought he’d done the wrong thing or wasn’t sure of himself anymore. “Yes,” he said quietly, “save and get out. Save and come back.”

I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to reassure the man, wanted to… do a lot of things. But I had no idea what to say. He desperately wanted to meet Avalon, and he wanted me to be there with him when he did. He wanted to have some kind of relationship with his descendant. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, that we would get back to Earth and see Valley together. But I didn’t want to risk anything by saying the words aloud. So, I just started, “Hey, Dries?” When he looked at me, I continued, “Be ready when we get back. Because I’m gonna make you teach me some of that magic you’re so good with.”

“Mom, Flick!” Sands looked visibly distraught that she wasn’t coming over with us. “Be… be careful, guys.”

The same sentiment was echoed by the others. Haiden had his kids pulled right up against him as they all watched. Everyone looked pretty upset that they weren’t coming on this part. But the fact was, aside from Haiden, none of them could have. Because the others didn’t have the ability to possess people.

I did, as did Athena, Apollo, and Larissa. Haiden had the same ability, but it had been universally decided that one of the two should stay with the others, and Larissa had won their game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Why did we need only people who could possess others? That was the whole plan. We would take the portal over there and possess the people in charge. In mine and Larissa’s cases, we could actually possess Seosten, which as I had seen back on the slave planet, they were absolutely not accustomed to dealing with.

We would work our way quietly through the ship, eventually making our way to more important people. Once we did… well, once we did, it would be time for the next step. Those steps would lead directly toward our being able to create a portal that led past all of Kushiel’s security and into that facility, a portal that the others could use to join us down there.  

So the others weren’t being left out completely, not in the least. Their turn would come soon enough. We just had to do our part first.

“Hey, don’t act like we’re leaving you out of all the danger, guys.” Giving them all a nod and salute as I reminded them of that fact, I added, “Remember, this is just phase one. You’ll be there for the rest of the phases.”

“Ten,” Jokai got down to then. “Nine… eight…”

Looking to Athena and Apollo together on one side of me and Larissa on the other, I offered, “So, uh, I guess this is it.”

Larissa put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. “It’s alright,” she promised, “we’ll take care of–”

“Go!” the call came from Jokai, interrupting her. “One… two… three….”

Right, right, ten seconds. Time for reassurance later. Or not, since we’d be right in the middle of things. I took a breath, watching as Athena went through the portal, followed by Apollo, and then Larissa. The adults went through first, with me bringing up the rear.

Alright, partner, I thought to Tabbris, let’s go get your mom.

A second later, I was through the portal, emerging into a room that looked like some kind of maintenance bay, full of broken down tank-like vehicles, a couple of those hovercycle things (V-Carrus, I remembered), and more that I didn’t recognize. There were two huge floor to ceiling (which was about twenty feet up) doors straight ahead of us that were probably used to let the tanks and hovercycles either leave the ship or go into a larger bay where the rest of the vehicles were, as well as a few smaller ones dotted around the room that clearly led elsewhere inside the ship itself.

There were also a handful of already-broken and smoldering robots, as well a couple of apparently unconscious figures lying here and there throughout the room. Clearly, the adults had been busy in the couple of seconds before Tabbris and I arrived.

“We must move quickly,” Athena started the second I appeared, “The defenders were dispatched before they could set off any alarm, and the ongoing battle will mean that the crew is thoroughly distracted. But the longer we dally, the higher our chances of being discovered. And,” she added pointedly, her voice flat, “the higher our casualties in the battle.”

“Right.” Larissa was already moving to one of the unconscious bodies on the floor. Reaching down, she caught hold of him before disappearing.

I did the same, heading for another of the bodies. This one was a short, squat figure that looked like Mike from Monsters Inc, only covered in fine, silky smooth white fur instead of green skin. Alright, partner, I sent to Tabbris, Let’s see if I can do this one myself.

It took longer than if I had let the other girl do it for me. I had much less experience than she did. But I had to get better at it, and we’d been practicing over the time that we’d spent with Athena and the Aelaestiam. So, after a brief delay where I had to try a couple times, I finally managed to possess him.

Err. Right, I realized, I guess I got that part, but  I think you’re gonna have to poke him awake.

Okay! Tabbris chirped. Then I felt her carefully working the man’s adrenaline (or whatever his species’ equivalent was), coaxing him out of unconsciousness. He snapped awake, big eye opening, and I felt his overwhelming fear.

It’s okay! I sent to him quickly. Listen, just hold on. Look–hey, I know how this looks, but I’m not a Seosten, okay? I–oh man, believe me, this is too hard to get into right now. But I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. We’re not here to hurt you. I just need to borrow your body for a little bit. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s literally life and death. Lots of lives and deaths, actually. So… just sit back and I promise I’ll try to get us all through this.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure that actually worked. He was still afraid, terrified really. And I didn’t have time to actually convince him that I wasn’t there to hurt him. We had to keep moving.

Taking control of his hands, I pushed us up, managing a grunt. “Ugh.” My voice sounded rough, like I was gargling concrete. “I really don’t like this part of Seosten powers.”

By that point, the others had all possessed bodies of their own, and the four of us moved to the nearest door. Athena, possessing a tall, pitch-black figure with a flat, gorilla-like face put his hand against the panel there, then ushered us through as the door slid open.

We went. Apollo first, possessing a matty-furred Rakshasa. I followed after him, with Larissa in the body of a frog-like Menmeran right behind me. Athena came after us. Together, the four of us, possessing other bodies, began to make our way through the Seosten warship in the middle of the most intense battle I had ever seen.

Phase one had officially begun.

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